When I look at the proposed Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, I sometimes think about wrongful conviction cases.
The analogy is not a stretch. The province’s energy company, Nalcor, defends the project with great conviction, but there is always that nagging possibility that they’re wrong. That the whole thing is an expensive white elephant.
Wrongful conviction cases usually result, at least in part, from tunnel vision. In a crime where one suspect stands out for one reason or another, detectives may unwittingly channel their investigation into that one theory of the case. Rather than following contrary evidence where it naturally leads, they may try to hammer it into their own scenario, or ignore its significance altogether.
In a famous case in Ontario in the 1980s, Guy Paul Morin was tried, acquitted, then retried and convicted of killing a young girl who lived next door. The police found Morin to be an odd, introverted sort, and focused their investigation entirely on him from the start. They ignored serious variances in time lines, as well as a number of other crucial leads reported by witnesses.
Morin was eventually cleared through DNA evidence, and was awarded damages by the province.
Last week’s joint environmental review panel report on Muskrat Falls found a similar lack of thoroughness on the part of Nalcor, particularly when it came to alternative theories of the “crime.” In other words, they have not fully examined the potential of alternative sources of power to cover the long-term needs of the island portion of the province.
So, why is Muskrat Falls the “prime suspect” for power generation?
Because it fits into a long-held dream of this province’s politicians and people to make up for the Churchill Falls blunder.
And under former premier Danny Williams, it became more than a dream to reap benefits from a new project. After negotiations with Quebec proved fruitless, it morphed into an opportunity to snub Quebec.
The seemingly untenable proposal of skirting around Quebec through underwater cables became part of Williams’ daily parlance. He floated the option as if he was talking about a minor detour off the Trans-Canada Highway.
To some, it may have seemed like a poorly veiled bluff. But in November 2010, there it was — a tentative deal with Nova Scotia’s main energy company to wheel power under the sea to the Northern Peninsula and then across the Gulf to the Maritimes.
If there had been no Upper Churchill; no lopsided deal. If there had been no friction with our nationalist neighbour, and no engrained desire to undo the wrong we were duped into decades ago. And, finally, if there had been no Danny Williams — would this project have even materialized?
Reading the review panel’s comments, one comes to the conclusion that the rationalization for the project is circular. The Muskrat project is a given, and the statistics that are gathered only justify its existence. Statistics that fall outside the project — that of alternative sources — are sparse and poorly developed.
And simple considerations — like the impact on consumption of the trend towards energy efficiency — are ignored.
It’s important to note that the panel’s review was not all bad. Nalcor had done its homework in many areas, particularly in terms of gauging the impact on communities and natural heritage.
Unlike preparations for the Smallwood Reservoir in the 1960s, for example, the panel “acknowledged that Nalcor has been proactive in surveying historic and archeological potential, and has worked extensively with Innu elders to address their cultural concerns.”
But the key concern — viability — remains sketchy.
The thing about court trials is that the defendant may, of course, be guilty. And Muskrat Falls may still be the best of all possible scenarios. It’s a guessing game no matter how thoroughly you study it, but it should be the best educated guess possible.
The trial’s not over. Let’s hope we have the right man. Because if we don’t, the damages we’ll have to pay will be enormous.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.