Just answer the questions

Peter Jackson
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If the PUB was the jury in a criminal trial, you might say it just delivered a nullification verdict.

Basically, it did a bunch of things it wasn’t supposed to do, and didn’t do the one thing it was asked to do.

Until Monday, the Muskrat Falls hydro project had been given a relatively free ride in the oversight process. A private review by Navigant gave it the green light. Manitoba Hydro said the numbers it was given pretty well add up.

A joint federal-provincial assessment panel endorsed the project overall, although some of the environmental shortcomings it found are currently being used in court action by third parties.

But the Public Utilities Board wouldn’t play ball. It discussed, at length, the forbidden topic of alternatives to the two scenarios provided by the Crown’s energy firm, Nalcor. And it spelled out the long and ultimately unfruitful efforts to extract updated information.

There’s one important difference between the PUB and the other consultants contracted to look at the $6.2-billion project.

Hired guns

Manitoba Hydro and Navigant were hired to offer an opinion. They have little to lose in handing in a positive verdict, particularly if the numbers and parameters they’re given already point to that conclusion.

The PUB, on the other hand, is the province’s own regulator. It is much more incumbent on it to make sure the province’s best interests are represented.

PUB chairman Andy Wells got where he did through the same man who heralded the Muskrat Falls plan — former premier Danny Williams. It is hardly in Wells’ interest to undermine the legacy of his benefactor.

This is important, because the current administration — like the last — seems hell bent on colouring every criticism it hears as partisan tripe or negative niggling.

Yes, there are a handful of people in this province who are determined, rightly or wrongly, to kill Muskrat Falls outright. They have made their mission clear, and pound it home at every opportunity.

Convince us

But most questions about the project stem from a simple desire to be convinced.

These citizens aren’t satisfied with vague assurances from Nalcor or provincial ministers. They want to see that other options have been fairly ruled out. Show the research, show the numbers.

When civil engineer Steven Bruneau provides a detailed presentation on how natural gas can and has been used to run cheaper, cleaner generating plants — and that it’s already collected and stored in abundance off our shores — you can’t just write it off. You can’t, as Premier Kathy Dunderdale did, say the government can’t be bothered with some local expert giving a talk at MUN.

If oil companies say they’re not interested in selling natural gas, as the premier states, we should then examine why it’s not worth their while.

There are other instances in Nalcor’s research where alternative energy sources are excluded in one scenario and included in another.

In a submission to the PUB, former PUB chairman David Vardy pointed out how reclaiming power from the Upper Churchill is one of the few future certainties we have.

“Under the interconnected (Muskrat Falls) plan, Nalcor does include Churchill Falls power starting in 2057, yet we are told that 2041, some 16 years earlier in time, is too uncertain to consider Churchill Falls as an option,” Vardy told the hearings.

On Monday, the premier finally agreed to hold an exclusive debate on the project, once new information has been provided by Nalcor later this spring. And she will refer the matter again to Manitoba Hydro (but not the PUB).

This is good news, and Dunderdale is to be commended for finally doing what ought to have be done in the first place. Let’s hope she and her ministers will lose the dismissive tone and entertain every honest question on its face.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pjackson_NL

Organizations: Public Utilities Board, Manitoba Hydro

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Recent comments

  • Cyril Rogers
    April 04, 2012 - 18:35

    Peter, the PUB is rightly acting in the best interests of the people of this province and are the only body, thus far, to take a principled stand based on integrity. It is no credit to the Premier that she is now willing to have a special debate on Muskrat Falls in the HOA. She knows the outcome is rigged and is only trying to take the heat of her own lack of judgement and her own lack of transparency. This leader has failed the people of this province on every front, so why should we trust her to make this right. It should have been obvious to her from day one that a thorough review of all potential alternatives was in the best interest of the ratepayers of this province. What is obvious to me is that her interests are not our interests. If so, why would she support an arrangement that allows NALCOR to gouge consumers by forcing Newfoundland Hydro to buy a lot of power it will not need for decades, if ever? She knows it is the only way they can come even close to making the business model work, even after the government has to invest 40% to 50% cash upfront or it won't be viable on paper. Show us the real numbers, Premier! Wait until the cost overruns start to pile up and we have to continue to inject more and more cash. Small wonder, then, she is worrried about a deficit. All the extra cash will be siphoned off to keep this white elephant afloat.

  • Was the Premier expecting a non critical Go Ahead from the PUB simply because the Government paid for the Review
    April 04, 2012 - 16:44

    The Premier reacted to the PUB's "No Go or was it Neutral" agreement to the Muskrat Falls by saying our Government paid this group $2 Million Dollars for it to conduct a review and this is what we got. It was like she was expecting the PUB to give its blessings knowing full well that some of the risks contained in the information at hand would create a backbreaking debt for the province and its people, and other important information needed to make an informative opinion was missing altogether. Is this what goes on in Governments, you pay a company for a study and you then get the outcome you want. I always thought that Inquires and Reviews paid for by governments were supposed to be done in a critical way and let the chips fall where they may, even though I have noticed quite often it almost always turned out in a positive way for those who paid for the review. Crony/Corrupt Capitalism is the name of that game.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    April 04, 2012 - 16:19

    It begs the question ---- why is it that government do not want ratepayers to PAY LESS for their electricity?

  • Good points in this article.
    April 04, 2012 - 14:10

    Good points in this article. I understand how the PUB could not make a decision based on the restrictive measures imposed by the premier’s hydro company, Nalcor. They should be required to resubmit a proper proposal with all options attached – not just Muskrat or Holyrood. It’s as plain as the nose on her face that the premier doesn’t want ratepayers to know about potential cheaper rates.

  • I concur just answer the questions honestly
    April 04, 2012 - 12:33

    Peter you are so right in making the comparison between Manitoba Hydro, Navigant and the Public Utilities Board of Newfoundland and Labrador, all of whom were hired to offer an opinion on the Muskrat Falls suitability for the province's energy source. As you said Peter, Manitoba Hydro and Navigant have little to lose in handing in a positive veridct , but as you said the PUB, on the other hand, is the province’s own regulator and it is much more incumbent on it to make sure the province’s best interests are represented. But I truly believe that whoever was paid to do this type of review should act in the best interest of the province, not for the developers. From what I read on this project's reviews, all three said they didn't have all the details and that there were risks to the Project. What all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are looking for are the truthful answers to their questions. If this Muskrat Project is risky on any front, the risks should be pointed out and commented on as to their severity, isn't that the reason these Corporations got paid big money so we could obtain a truthful review of the risks of this project and whether or not it Muskrat Falls Hydro will provide the best alternative energy source for our province with the cheapest installation cost?