Last month, the provincial government announced the new expected bill for Muskrat Falls, and released yet another study from Manitoba Hydro International (MHI), a report that clearly nudged the project closer to project sanction.
Here’s what Premier Kathy Dunderdale said at the news conference announcing the release of the report: “Muskrat Falls sets the stage for us to finally take control of our destiny and achieve the enviable position of total energy independence in the international marketplace. … This project will have a tremendous impact on the people of Newfoundland and Labrador for years to come.”
But do yourself a favour: read the darned thing. It’s not likely to change the minds of those who oppose the project, and for those in favour of the enterprise, it’s more inextinguishable proof of its intrinsic value.
Positions on Muskrat Falls have hardened like arteries, and little will change the minds of the entrenched on either side.
But it’s also not likely to provide an objective observer with full confidence that all major risks have been extinguished.
Why? It’s a relatively broad-brush report that says the project meets accepted utility standards for forecasting and preplanning major projects, many of which go hugely off the fiscal rails (even in Manitoba), despite those standards.
Sometimes, an interesting way to look at a report is in the inverse: for a moment, imagine that Muskrat Falls went horribly off the rails and costs shot through the roof (this is purely a hypothetical case).
Could you then go back to the MHI report and say that they got it wrong?
First of all, MHI is pretty clear in their disclaimer: “The recommendations, opinions or findings stated in this report are based on circumstances and facts as they existed at the time MHI prepared the report. Any changes in circumstances and facts upon which this report is based may adversely affect any recommendations, opinions or findings contained in this report.”
More to the point, if you hunker down and read the 80 pages, you’ll find there are a fair number of sections where MHI is basically saying the review holds up only if they’ve been given the right information — and all of their information is coming from Nalcor.
Things like this, about the power line to the Avalon: “The design and construction schedule proposed by Nalcor is achievable provided there are no major changes to the project scope, unusual weather encountered during construction seasons, and adequate contractors are retained with resources available.”
Or even the report’s final conclusions: “With the assumptions and inputs provided by Nalcor to MHI, the Interconnected Island option remains the least cost option to meet the needs for capacity and energy to supply the forecasted load in Newfoundland and Labrador until 2067.”
In other words, if the inputs and assumptions are off the mark, MHI can hardly be held responsible for things going sideways.
It’s a fine report, as far as it goes, and this isn’t to suggest that there’s no value to reading it — there certainly is real value in there, especially to see the dramatic number of changes between the way the project was envisioned last spring and what it looks like now.
One major change? The entire powerhouse at the falls has been turned by 30 degrees, and there’s been a dramatic strengthening of some of the transmission grid.
There are even wonderful nuggets like this: “Outage periods up to one month or greater in remote line sections are possible. The emergency response plan needs to consider the availability of alternate generation in addition to the potential duration and extent of an (high-voltage direct current) transmission line outage. Nalcor acknowledges that an emergency response plan is necessary and will undertake the development of one prior to in-service.”
The only real danger is believing that the report is something more than it actually is.
But ever-so-limited liability.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.