Live through enough winters, and you know what they look like on the horizon. You know the wet black of the branches, the way the light in the sky goes flatter and whiter, and even if some mornings lie a little, you know by the feel of the air that snow’s already a given.
Reading between the lines of a host of different publicly available documents, you see something just as clearly: Muskrat Falls, for all intents and purposes, was fully sanctioned months ago, and any debate we’re having now is only window dressing.
Now, reading between the lines can be a dangerous thing; sometimes, though, you can see when decisions have clearly already been made.
There’s this, from Alderon’s environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Kami iron ore project in Labrador: “Electrical transmission line from terminal to be located by Nalcor to the mine site.”
It’s just one of 26 mentions of Nalcor in the first volume of Alderon’s environmental documents.
There’s this: “Alderon has also changed the location of its transmission line to avoid interference with recreational areas and housing developments. Alderon has proposed to Nalcor Energy that the power line be rerouted along the rail right-of-way.”
And this: “The operations phase of the project will see an overall demand for electrical power in the order of 100 to 120 MW, with annual electric power consumption estimated to be in the order of 800 GWh. Again, for the reasons outlined above, the supply of electricity to the site from existing hydroelectric generation through a new Nalcor Energy transmission line to the site is the preferred option.”
And this: “The operations phase of the project will see an overall demand for power in the order of 100-120 MW. The project power requirements and the manner in which they will be addressed (options by Nalcor Energy), including responsibility for permitting and constructing any new transmission line(s) are described in Section 2.5.6.”
And most of all, this: “Nalcor Energy is aware of the power requirements for the Alderon Project during its construction phase, as well as power requirements for other projects in western Labrador, and is considering these needs in its system upgrades and transmission line design. The Lower Churchill Hydro Generation Project could also potentially supply more power to the region. As a result, project construction will not affect Nalcor Energy’s ability to supply electricity to its customers in Labrador City and Wabush.”
In their own words…
But if Alderon’s EIS is not enough to suggest that the Muskrat train left the station long ago, you could use Newfoundland Hydro’s own words.
The utility is in the midst of a multi-million-dollar capital budget application in front of the province’s Public Utilities Board (PUB).
(You may remember the PUB as the regulatory agency that Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy said the government had no confidence in.) The PUB is a quasi-judicial body where witnesses give testimony — smoke and mirrors are frowned upon.
Have a look at that capital plan, and something becomes obvious quickly. Hydro has some big expenses coming up, including stop-gap work on the Holyrood generating station — which, as you might recall, would be taken out of commission if Muskrat Falls goes ahead.
Here’s what the utility says about the current capital spending: “The Holyrood capital projects contained in this application are necessary to replace assets which are at the end of their useful lives, and which must be replaced to maintain reliability through to the completion of the Muskrat Falls development.”
Dig deeper and you see that Hydro is taking a calculated approach, doing only short-term work that would make sense regardless of whether Muskrat Falls goes ahead or not.
Still, there are blocks of text in the application like this one: “The Muskrat Falls Generating Station and interconnection via the Labrador Island (high-voltage, direct current) HVDC Link will displace the current power and energy needs from Holyrood and change Newfoundland and Labrador’s electricity system. In addition, the interconnection to Nova Scotia via the Maritime Link will potentially provide options for a short term supply through reserve available outside of the province. For the purposes of this capital budget submission first power was anticipated to be available in late 2016. However, sensitivity of the impact of a one year delay is provided regarding the demands on the existing plant. Any delay only serves to increase the importance of maintaining the Holyrood asset at full capability.”
It’s not “may” or “if,” it’s “will.”
And more: “Following the full commissioning of the HVDC interconnections, it is intended to maintain the Holyrood asset as generator ready for three to four years so that in the event of loss of supply from Labrador, it can be called upon to provide power and energy to the island. Following that, the thermal aspect of the station will be decommissioned.”
Or: “The current base case is to operate Holyrood as needed through 2016 and as a backup with minimal operation for 2017 to 2020 (32,000 bbls of oil per year versus 3.2 million bbls during 2016). The plan is to operate each unit for a period of time to ensure they are fully operational, and to ensure that staff retains the skills required to keep the complex plant operational in case of any adverse events.”
“In reviewing the capital needs of the plant, Hydro has considered the time lines discussed above and proposes to submit only those projects necessary for the safe, reliable operation of the plant as a generator up to the time of decommissioning.”
Winter follows fall, and even though the signs can be thin, you know what’s coming.
The sanctioning of Muskrat Falls is a fait accompli for everyone inside the business.
It is nothing more than a formality now, unless something happens in Nova Scotia and that province walks away. After all, you don’t sign five-year contracts for services if you don’t plan to use those services.
It’s only those of us outside government, mining companies and Nalcor who imagine there’s any possible debate left.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.