August is shaping up to be a pivotal month for the Muskrat Falls project.
In the next couple of weeks, Nalcor will draw together the final cost projections and detailed projections which will form the basis for a final decision on whether or not the provincial government spends billions of dollars to build a massive dam and associated infrastructure.
The government still refuses to put specific timelines or deadlines on any of this, but the endgame for the Muskrat Falls debate is starting to come into focus.
Later this month, Nalcor will draw together its final cost projections, and put together a comprehensive package of information - essentially all of the work that's been done on the project to date.
This information will be given to Manitoba Hydro International, an independent contractor originally selected by the province's Public Utilities Board. Manitoba Hydro will assess the sanctioning numbers, and do a report.
Once that report is done - likely sometime in September - it will all be made public and available to opposition politicians as they get ready for a special debate in the House of Assembly this fall.
Nothing has been set in stone when it comes to the special House debate, but comments from Premier Kathy Dunderdale seem to indicate it will likely last one week, and will be similar to the special debate held on Voisey's Bay in 2002.
There will be a resolution, there will be a question period and there will be a vote where MHAs stand for or against building the project.
The vote will be largely ceremonial, though. Because the government has a large majority, it's hard to envision a scenario where it won't pass. In any event, it won't be the House of Assembly that makes the decision.
After the special debate, Dunderdale's cabinet will sit down and make a final decision to sanction the project.
Unless there are further delays, that decision is expected by the end of November.
Cost will be topic
In conversations with the province's political leaders, the shape of this fall's debate appears to be coming into focus as well.
Representatives from all three political parties said that, the question to debate is: how much will Muskrat Falls cost the people of the province?
"What is the final cost going to be, and can we as a province afford it?" NDP Leader Lorraine Michael asked.
"Then, connected to that directly is will the cost become so high that it will not be affordable for the individual people in the province when it comes to the cost of electricity."
Liberal House Leader Yvonne Jones framed the debate almost exactly the same way.
"The majority of the people are concerned with what my light bill is going to be at the end of the day," she said.
"How much am I going to have to pay for electricity in Newfoundland and Labrador?"
Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy said he believes Muskrat Falls is the best source of electricity for the province, but he also said people need to look at the bigger context.
"I would encourage everyone to continue to examine the issue, to look at the bigger picture especially," he said.
"What we're looking at here is a visionary approach to transforming our economy from non-renewable to a renewable resource economy."
Jones has been one of the most outspoken critics of the structure of the Muskrat Falls deal, which appears to be a somewhat separate issue.
Jones has argued that the government shouldn't be partnering with Nova Scotia-based Emera to build a subsea cable, allowing for the government to transport electricity to the Maritimes and northeast United States.
"We know today that the spot market prices are less than three cents per kilowatt, so that's not going to bring a return to the people of the province," Jones said.
"And if we're going to give power away at that rate, why aren't we giving it to industrial customers who are going to create long-term jobs for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians?"
The government argues instead that the subsea cable is critical for opening up an avenue for future electricity development, selling the much-vaunted potential of the province's "energy warehouse."
As the government bears down on the final sanctioning decision, though, the amount of work that's already been done on the project is staggering.
Nalcor has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the project already. Three hundred engineers are currently being employed full time to do work on the project.
When Nalcor CEO Ed Martin starts talking about it, he lists one major piece of work after another that the province's energy corporation has been working on.
Nalcor has hammered out water management rights for the Churchill River to work in conjunction with the Churchill Falls hydro facility.
Martin personally sat down to negotiate during the benefits agreement with the Innu Nation. Nearly half the engineering work for the project has already been done.
Earlier this week, the government and Nalcor released roughly 1,500 pages of legal agreements with Emera and the Nova Scotia government - more than a year and a half's worth of work.
"These are very critical pieces of work that goes on behind the scenes," Martin said.
"The quality of work that's going on in behind is absolutely massive, and it's yielding really good results."
In a lot of ways, the meaningful decision on Muskrat Falls was made two years ago in the fall of 2010, when the government announced it was looking to develop the dam.
That's when Nalcor originally decided that based on their information, Muskrat Falls was probably the best decision. Since then, they've been studying that decision.
When the cabinet ultimately sits down to make a decision between Muskrat Falls and some other equally studied option, it'll be a question of whether there's any fly in the ointment that should stop the province from jumping headlong into the project.
"Sanction is a Muskrat decision. We have done some due diligence on the numbers on the alternatives that we said we would do, and everything extra that we have done has indicated and supported our initial views," Martin said.
"We're moving towards a sanction of Muskrat Falls."
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