At six o’clock a sudden explosion erupted and split the peaceful Thanksgiving Saturday evening, so large and loud it was heard many kilometres away from the blast site near Muskrat Falls. It was the sound of Nalcor exercising its brand of prudence.
This wasn’t the first such explosion heard in the hills along the lower Grand River in the past few weeks, and it won’t be the last. Nalcor is not just clearing forest, cutting access roads and stringing electrical lines to possible construction sites, as Gilbert Bennett, the company’s vice-president in charge of responding to the nattering classes, often claims.
Nalcor is also expanding old quarries and opening several new ones on both sides of the river. The company is already running heavy dump trucks to stockpile large mounds of gravel beside where the dams are supposed to go.
Bennett will no doubt say that undertaking this quarry work (work he failed to mention) is the prudent thing to do, that somehow the $243 million Nalcor has freely spent on premature work this year will save it an undetermined amount of money next year.
Bennett’s argument is wearing thin, especially since next year’s savings require that the project go ahead. That’s looking less and less likely, since all of the arguments in favour of damming Muskrat Falls are looking as threadbare as the “prudence” line. The proponents even seem to be having trouble convincing themselves that the development’s $8-billion to $10-billion price tag is not too much to pay, even though they still don’t have any outside markets willing to buy the overly expensive power. Newfoundlanders don’t want to be gouged for it either, but they won’t have a choice.
The dawning realization that consumers in New England do have a choice and they’ve chosen never again to buy from destructive megaprojects like the proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric development came as bad news to Nalcor, to the Progressive Conservative government and to everybody else who wants more dams built in Labrador.
Without the United States, Nalcor loses at least a third of its predicted markets for Muskrat Falls power, and now that Premier Kathy Dunderdale has declared Quebecers to be predatory hostage-takers, Nalcor probably has to abandon hope of selling electricity to Ontario and other points west using the Hydro-Québec TransEnergie system. That leaves the Maritimes, but since Nova Scotia gets the electricity free, only New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island remain. Neither needs Labrador power or wants it.
That’s why Dunderdale started talking about new mines in western Labrador. Until now, all of the electricity from Muskrat Falls was supposed to go to the island first. Outgoing Premier Danny Williams said so. He said that Labrador must wait for power until the next dam is built at Gull Island. That’s the plan Nalcor submitted for environmental assessment.
So, what did Dunderdale mean? Was she just saying that, sure, the mines will get Lower Churchill power, but as planned: only after the Gull Island rapids are dammed? Or has she unilaterally changed the Muskrat blueprints? Will the 339.6 megawatts (40 per cent of the projected output) reserved for the U.S. now go to Lab West instead? The mining companies operating on both sides of the border would certainly welcome the attention. They expect the new Parti Québécois government to impose new taxes and cut their Plan Nord subsidies, so they’ll be happy to latch onto Nalcor, Newfoundland’s most generous corporate welfare scheme.
If this goes ahead, plans for transmission lines will have to be changed, too. Nalcor will need an extra one from Churchill Falls to western Labrador, for sure, and maybe it won’t need one to Nova Scotia.
When Williams proclaimed Lower Churchill success with great fanfare the day before he quit his job, all his triumph was based on the sketchy Emera deal. Now his successor must choose between leaving that lynchpin in place just to send free electricity out of the province, or pull it out and watch Nalcor’s rickety plans crash to the ground.
It’s time to bring this latest version of the Lower Churchill boondoggle to an end, before any more damage is caused and any more money is wasted.
That would be the prudent thing to do.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.