Imagine: after many tens of millions of dollars have been spent by the government in St. John’s on lawyers, consultants, bureaucrats and engineers to conduct countless field studies and marketing strategies, after investing years of political capital to boost the fabled Lower Churchill hydroelectric megaproject as an inexhaustible fountain of wealth, after claiming for years that the whole project must be built for all their dreams to come true, the Progressive Conservatives have dealt their own obsession a fumbling blow that may finally kill it — but slowly and painfully, not mercifully quick.
Let’s see, was it Grimes or Tobin who last proposed the one-dam-not-two scenario? Premiers Roger and Brian (as well as Clyde Wells and all before him and after, including Beaton Tulk if he’d had the time) tried every combination they could think of to unlock the treasure houses they imagined to lie hidden beneath the waters of Muskrat Falls and the Gull Island rapids.
Sometimes they proposed two dams, sometimes just one, and they had transmission lines snaking all over the Labrador map, but they never found the right sequence of numbers, the right financing, the right buyers, the right route or the right way to protect the natural environment.
Since he got into office, Danny Williams has been going for two dams, but as everyone’s heard by now he’s decided that one will do: the one at Muskrat, that is. He still wants to throw a third dam across the Churchill at Gull Island, but he says it can wait.
As usual, environmental considerations played no part in this decision. Instead, since the government doesn’t have a hope in hell of raising the uncounted billions needed to build the entire project, officials might be reasoning that half of an astronomically high price tag might be easier to swallow than a whole one. No doubt they want to get something accomplished for fear that otherwise Williams will just go down in Newfoundland history as one of a long line of premiers who failed to achieve the Lower Churchill quest. They’re willing to settle for half the project if the alternative is nothing at all.
Unfortunately for the government’s dreams, this compromise is not likely to succeed. Once again, officials advising the premier seem to have forgotten about the importance of the New Dawn deal. That oversight is going to mean many more years of negotiations with the Innu before any construction can start.
New Dawn was predicated on both halves of the project going ahead. Now the Innu Nation must still surrender all the same claims and rights, but if money is only being generated at Muskrat Falls, Innu royalties will amount to about half of what was originally promised. The Innu are not going to like that.
Maybe it’s time Newfoundland governments adopt a new obsession. The Lower Churchill has been sustaining them for all the years since Joey Smallwood, but it’s been nothing but a drain on the province’s resources. If only Newfoundland premiers dreamed of other things than building big dams in Labrador. What would life in this province be like if leaders dreamed of providing citizens with a health-care system that isn’t crippled by money shortages and labour strife; if they dreamed of well-maintained and efficient roads, railways and ferry services; or of making sure that every Newfoundlander and Labradorian has enough to eat and a roof overhead?
Think of the benefit if a premier dreamed of protecting the natural wonders of Gull Island and Muskrat Falls and bequeathing them to future generations as provincial parks.
Unfortunately, the Lower Churchill hydro dream is hard to kill. How much more taxpayer money is the government going to spend before it stops gambling in this highly speculative market? It might be fun to play big-shot businessmen in glitzy financial centres, but if the province’s politicians could stop wasting time and money on pointless boondoggles, they’d have more chance to take care of the actual business of government.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.