The Muskrat debate: must-see TV

Gerry Phelan
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This is an open letter to John Steele, Geoff Stirling, the local managers of CBC and anyone else in control of the broadcast media in this province.

Sometime in the next three to six months our House of Assembly will be called into session to debate the Muskrat Falls project. It has the potential to be one of the most important discussions in this province’s history, and we must be able to see, hear and — most importantly — comprehend all the dimensions of the plan.

I know House of Assembly sessions are webcast, but that doesn’t work as well for those stuck with only dial-up Internet. It is also of no use for those without computers. The legislature is televised on the House of Assembly channel on cable but those with Bell Aliant television are out of luck. We need this debate made available to everyone, on local broadcast outlets.  

Premier Kathy Dunderdale has said Muskrat Falls has come under more scrutiny than any other project in our history. Given its magnitude, that’s the way it should be.

Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy is fond of saying it boils down to some basic questions. Do we need the power? If so, what is the best way to deal with the need for power? What is the lowest cost option?

If only the explanation was that simple. We know the minimum cost will be $6.2 billion, but everyone expects that estimate to increase. Some of us are confused by terms such as “decision gate,” “cumulative present worth,” “PPAs” and “PIRA.” We deserve to understand this project in the simplest terms possible.

The official Opposition has already written the premier seeking details of the upcoming debate. They want to know specifics, such as how many times each MHA can speak.

They also raised the question of whether expert witnesses will be permitted to address the legislature.  We know all three parties have substantial work to do this summer, as various reports are hopefully released on natural gas, wind energy and, of course, the latest financial projections.

Premier Dunderdale made the point during the final sitting day of the House: “We have opportunities to educate ourselves around the issues that are before us. It is extremely important that we take advantage of the resources available to us so that we can explain clearly to the people of the province our position and our perspective on a particular piece of legislation.

“There is nothing wrong with putting a different lens on legislation that is on the House of Assembly. There is something wrong, Mr. Speaker, when you put spin on it. If your feedback to legislation here in the House of Assembly is going to be relevant, Mr. Speaker, then it needs to be informed.

“That is a responsibility that we all share in this House on both sides.”

Well said, and those of us following Muskrat Falls look forward to intense debate. As NDP Leader Lorraine Michael told the CBC last month, “Sometimes it’s not the quality of the questions that’s the issue. It’s the quality of the answers.”

I know the mammoth task involved in carrying the Muskrat Falls debate on local television and radio stations. We’re talking the potential for missed revenue and the debate may not be a ratings blockbuster. Still, every effort must be made to make this historic discussion available to every Newfoundlander and Labradorian who will forever wear the legacy of success or failure from the most expensive project this province has ever undertaken.

The National Convention on Newfoundland’s future received as much attention in 1946. I recall reading a note from someone who followed that debate: “I do not need to read the speeches. I remember most of them.”   

The bottom line is making sure we are as informed as possible about the options before us. We need to see it, hear it, and yes, through the magic of Twitter and Facebook, participate in it.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at

Organizations: CBC, Bell Aliant, National Convention on Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • The Muskrat Falls Project will bankrupt our province
    July 08, 2012 - 18:10

    The Muskrat Falls Project should have already been called off long ago, given the sordid economic details that we have been reading about for the past year. This Project is poised to sink the province of Newfoundland and Labrador into a state of bankruptcy. The sad thing about it is the Project appears to have already been sanctioned months prior to this fall's proposed upcoming debate. None of the developers gives a damn because with the Crony Capitalist System they have set up, they are poised to make hundreds of millions of dollars off the Muskrat Falls Project that is being built supposedly to fuel the the proposed mining projects with cheap energy, while the ORES from them are destined to be shipped out of our province in the raw state, no different than what has happened over the centuries with our resources. The ordinary hydro consumer in our province will pay exorbitant ELECTRICITY RATES for 57 years. How I wish Julian Assange of Wikileaks, the man who wanted to tell the World of the corruption cooked up among Government Leaders and the Corporation CEOs, was allowed to talk freely to the Global population about what is going on, instead he was arrested and thrown into jail and as a result the same old song and dance routine of Global Corruption/Crony Capitalism will go on and on.

  • William Daniels
    July 07, 2012 - 18:59

    I want to see everyone's face on TV who voted for this disaster recorded for history.

  • Maggy Carter
    July 06, 2012 - 23:54

    John Smith would make a terrible accountant. He seems totally confused on the difference between the capital costs of a project and the method of financing. There are tax and accounting rules which govern the classification of costs as capital or current. For example, if it is not a recurrent cost then it is a capital cost. If it is a cost that is reflected in the ultimate value of the asset (as it is in this instance), then it is a capital cost. The cost of the transmission system - every part of that system - is a capital cost irrespective how it is financed. The proposed EMERA investment of $2 billion in return for a block of power is merely a financing technique. It does not reduce the capital cost of the project. That Smith has consistently sought to mislead the public regarding the economics of this project is bad enough. What's worse is the prospect that this misleading information is being fed to him by NALCOR and the government of this province. Smith and his buddies at Nalcor are also well aware that mega-projects undertaken and financed by government - as opposed to the private sector - have zero chance of coming in on budget. Who doesn't remember the famous last words of Montreal Mayor Drapeau who proclaimed that the Olympics could no more lose money than a man could have a baby. Drapeau's baby arrived with a $1 billion overrun - a deficit from which that city never recovered. Incidentally $1 billion in 1976 is equivalent to $20 billion in today's dollars. There are some people in this province with their heads in the sand. They naively believe that if all those smart people in government and Nalcor say this is good stuff, then it must be O.K. Please remember it was exactly that kind of blind faith in our political leadership that led to the Churchill Falls fiasco.

  • Cold Future
    July 06, 2012 - 12:48

    Send this thing to the PUB and let them finish the job they started but could not finish due to insuficient information.This project has the potential to have a far larger negative impact on the well being of Newfoundlanders than anything that has preceeded it. The government who should be scrutinizing this project with a fine tooth comb are the very ones trying to sell it like ice cubes to eskimos. It is daunting to think that this fiasco has probably gone too far to stop despite being such a sellout and giveaway. Some see Muskrat as power in perpituity, to any who try to rationalize it by cost and payback it is a frightful loser and a huge giveaway.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    July 06, 2012 - 11:40

    The cashflow from island ratepayers to Nalcor over the 50-year take or pay contract period is about $35 BILLION --- $21 BILLION (60%) of which will be on the backs of our children and grandchildren -- even AFTER we get NEAR-ZERO cost Upper Churchill power back in 2041. ------ While WE were denied the benefit of Upper Churchill power for 70 years --- arguably by Quebec, if we proceed with Muskrat Falls, this time it will be WE, ourselves, that will be denying our grandchildren the opportunity to benefit, come 2041, of Upper Churchill power......... By then we will still have decades left where we will still be paying off BILLIONS in debt servicing and operating costs (more than $6 BILLION after 2041 alone), we will be LOCKED IN to very high cost Muskrat Falls power rates, operating costs alone for Muskrat Falls will be more than $200 million a year ---- and we will again have NO CHOICE but to again sign another, long term contract with Quebec for Upper Churchill power --- for pennies. See website for details.

  • Silly Newfies
    July 06, 2012 - 11:36

    Having to debate this major of a project means it's a bad idea. Were this really such a good idea newfies, you wouldn't have to debate. You lose what $0.5B a year to Quebec from Churchill Falls? Perhaps you should leave these types of projects to other provinces and stick to fishing and mining.

  • Derrick
    July 06, 2012 - 11:26

    Everybody who has worked in Lab knows the project will die up there, the tax payer will die after the final costs come in, we will be whipped by we can't stop know. Quebec will clean up after as will be in terrible fiscal shape. This province has never done anything that has not increased by 30 % in costs, on the island. Do you expect better in Lab, Nalcor is the same as Eastern Health, Transport and Education many good stories but little real experience, ask SNC for a firm price quote all costs in, this gives us fix cost. If it wasn't for PC politics the Managment in Nalcor would not be there, as usual small town and big ideas

  • John Smith
    July 06, 2012 - 10:59

    Well...right off the bat the project will not cost NL 6.2 billion, as that is the total cost of the project...not the cost to us. In actuallity the latest cost will come in at around 7.3 billion, because of delays etc...BUT Emera will have to pay nearly 2 billion of that cost. The dam itself will cost around 3.5 billion to build, the rest is in transmission etc. So those who start their argument by saying this project will cost 6.2...or 7 .3 are that will be the total cost of the project...which is 2 billion dollars different than what we will pay....

    • Willi Makit
      July 06, 2012 - 18:49

      And just how do you know anything about the cost of this project John Smith when government can't even give us a firm estimate? For that matter, NALCOR's projections on demand have been wildly inaccurate. Demand is rising only at a fraction of the rate predicted. This project should be put on full stop. We can use recall power from Churchill Falls in the interim between now and 2041, all for the cost of a transmission line. If we need power in addition to what we can get from Churchill Falls, build the dam then. To proceed otherwise is foolish speculation.