Tunnel vision

Peter Jackson
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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 pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Muskrat, Ontario, Quebec Nova Scotia Northern Peninsula

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Recent comments

  • Maurice E. Adams
    September 02, 2011 - 11:16

    WHERE IS THE DEMAND ????? From Nalcor's own documents:---- Our "existing system('s) installed net capacity (is) 1958 MW", and Nalcor's 2010 Annual Report says our 'peak demand' for 2010 was 1305 MW and did not exceed 1390 MW for the past 5 years!!!!! ======= Even with Vale, our demand will increase by only 85MW. That leaves twice as much existing unused net capacity as the 330 MW we will go in debt BILLIONS for from Muskrat Falls. What kind of sense does that make?

  • Cyril Rogers
    September 01, 2011 - 14:32

    John.... are you saying the the Environmental Assessment Panel is being untruthful in its report? I am merely citing the reasons they gave for turning thumbs down on this proposal as currently envisioned. Let me ask you this: how confident are you that energy prices will only go up by 37% if this project goes ahead? What if the cost overruns jump by 20-30%. Don't tell me it won't happen.... because every project they have completed, on a much smaller scale, has been way above estimates.! Furthermore, the only guarantee we have is that we will get major increases in electricity costs if this project proceeds. How do you know prices would otherwise double and double again? NALCOR's propaganda, of course! I rest my case! As for selling power to Emera, they may make some money but will be producing it at a far higher cost. In other words, we will be heavily subsidizing power to Nova Scotia! Nova Scotia will be laughing all the way to the bank while we go into heavy debt to provide them with subsidized power!

  • John Smith
    September 01, 2011 - 09:55

    Cyril, once again you are citing mistruths. First of all Muskrat falls will help us to LOWER our bills... not double them. If we go ahead with muskrat we will see our bills rise by 37 percent to off set the cost. If we do not build muskrat we will see our bills double and double and double forever. So that when you are old and grey you will be paying many more times what you are now. As well, it will not increse our debt, as the 4 billion will be offset on the other side by not only a 7 billion dollar asset, but by the money from the hydro we will sell to Emera. Anyway, the lies keep on coming. So sad there are so many misguided, and ill informed people out there. But that will change.

  • Cyril Rogers
    September 01, 2011 - 08:57

    JOHN....don't you think the Environmental Assessment Panel has "half a clue" either? These individuals were selected byt the federal and provincial governments to the best of my knowledge. I doubt if they would be people with only "half a clue". I submit to you, sir, that NALCOR was unable to provide sufficient evidence to prove the need for or the viability of this project. You are grasping at straws to blame this setback on some of the groups who intervened against the project. You are looking at this process with the same tunnel vision NALCOR has displayed. As for the reviews yet to come, their scope is too limited to thoroughly examine all aspects of this file. If, indeed, this were a fair and open process, and a completely independent review I would be satisfied but....it is not. The two guarantees with Muskrat Falls are that our POWER RATES INCREASE BY 40-50% and that OUR PROVINCIAL DEBT WILL INCREASE BY MORE THAN 50%. They can't do a small project without significant coast overruns so how, in any realistic world, can we believe them when they expect a huge project to come in on budget!!!

  • John Smith
    August 31, 2011 - 17:56

    Cyril, there are three independant reports coming, Navigant, PUB, and Manitoba Hydro. As well the banks, and the Feds also have to peruse and approve the deal. That envirometal report was flawed in so many ways it isn't worht the paper it's written on. The usual green aholes, the river keepers, the sierra club ect, were all well paid to spew their lies and crap. They said that in their opinion NALCOR did not look at other sources, that is a lie. They looked at all possibilities, and the two that they were left with was the Isolated island, or the green hydro with connection to the mainland. Anyone with half a clue knows that muskrat is the way to go...for so many reasons.

    • Facts not fiction
      September 01, 2011 - 09:14

      John Smith, your comment is big on accusations and short on proof. Anyone can say that the sky is green, but that doesn't make it so. NALCOR and government's claims just don't add up. Electrical consumption is flat, NALCOR's own statistics show that clearly. No amount of spin changes that truth.

  • Gerard
    August 31, 2011 - 15:19

    If there had been no Danny Williams would GrandFalls still have an operating papermill. Because, at this point in time it should be obvious to everyone that the 100 year old ecomomic engine of Central would never and did never receive the help to survive, such as the help now being heaped on the CornerBrook mill. The hydro plants belonging to Abitibi were one of the stepping stones to Nalcor's existance,so the mill was allowed to close and the expropriation cost associated with that fiasco is yet to come, but this Muskrat Falls cost to NL will be the last nail in the coffin, and HAVE NOT, will be the legacy once more. So, who are you voting for in OCT?

  • Cyril Rogers
    August 31, 2011 - 11:24

    JOHN SMITH....I respect your opinion and I do appreciate the concerns you raise. Unfortunately, as the Environmental Assessement Panel demonstrated, NALCOR did not do its due diligence in assessing the viability of other options. These may be well-educated people, John, but they are not infallible and will toady to the political whims of their masters. Can you imagine Ed Martin telling Danny Williams he was out to lunch! Can you imagine Mr. Martin stepping down from his well-paying job because he won't toe the current Premier's line! Not likely! The point, John Smith, is that the review raised serious concerns about the haste with which NALCOR reached its conclusions and the limited analysis they used to shoot down other possibilities. All I ask is that the entire process be a fair and independent one....NALCOR cannot do that on its own, given that it takes its mandate from the government. On that, we can surely agree!

  • John Smith
    August 31, 2011 - 10:12

    Cyril b'y, what are the alternatives? I haven't heard any. I've heard people metion the unbeliveably expensive, and unreliable wind scenario, which could be made somewhat more feasable if we connected to the mainland. natural gas for air polluting generators is also a pipe dream, as they have yet to come up with a cost effective way to get the gas ashore. One dupe is even saying we should all go back to burning wood! We keep looking around when the best answer is the one hundreds of well educated NL people who work for NALCOR have already deduced. As well, I feel Mr. Jackson's analogy is lame and baseless. That is my opinion.

    • W McLean
      August 31, 2011 - 11:04

      Going back to burning wood is exactly what many people will end up doing, rather than heating their homes with Muskrat juice.

    • Eli
      August 31, 2011 - 12:08

      JOHN SMITH...you shot yourself in the foot when you said; "hundreds of well educated people WHO WORK FOR NALCOR". Like running for office and voting for yourself.

  • Cyril Rogers
    August 31, 2011 - 08:43

    The PC apologists can never let go of their inability to see beyond the rhoretic and, of course, "John Smith" is right there to criticize the message of any critic. Only a person with no real foundation for an argument would resort to lame comments like his. Peter, you are presenting a valid analogy insofar as you compare this project to police theories that "there's your criminal" to NALCOR and the PC's rallying cry that "this is the answer to our energy needs". The alternatives are real and way less costly but the proponents with all the money and all the political clout can bully their way to a development that will either bankrupt us or at best produce enegry we will not need and don't have a market for.

  • John Smith
    August 31, 2011 - 07:35

    What a poor analogy.