The Lower Churchill project has become a sort of mythical quest for Newfoundlanders, like the search for Capt. Kidd’s gold or King Solomon’s Mines.
Its elusiveness makes it so. It’s been talked about and pursued for decades, but no one has so far been able to get it off the ground.
Former premier Roger Grimes was on the doorstep of a deal in 2002, and even had television commercials and a taped address ready to go. But that pact collapsed before it ever got to the public, mostly under the weight of widespread criticism.
Since Grimes, the Danny Williams administration has forged ahead on the Lower Churchill file with stubborn resolve. From filings with regulators to secret talks to public tirades, Williams has kept Lower Churchill on the front burner for his entire tenure so far.
Unsurprisingly, he’s encountered roadblocks. And his handling of those roadblocks has left many doubting his strategy. Many of his remarks — particularly those uttered in the heat of a difficult moment — seem contradictory and even irrational.
Two items stand out.
The first is Williams’ insistence that the province will “go it alone” in developing the project. The implication, presumably, is that the province will take the lead on the project, by attracting investors or by borrowing cash. The latter, as confessed to The Telegram by Nalcor boss Ed Martin last week, may be the least risky but would entail the selling of electricity at fixed rates through long-term power purchase agreements.
Fixed rates? Given the lopsided Upper Churchill pact, surely such terms would be considered sacrilege.
Through all this tough talk about going it alone, Nalcor and the government have, in fact, kept up negotiations with several parties, including Maritime provinces, Quebec and the federal government. Two weeks ago, a request for federal funds towards a subsea cable between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia surfaced when both provinces scolded Quebec for intervening in the process. Quebec had written Ottawa arguing that a grant for hydro development would undermine fair competition.
In a country where one-off federal assistance to provinces — including Quebec — is more the rule than the exception, Quebec’s argument in this case seems suspiciously targeted. But the incident illustrated how the wheels of Lower Churchill development are still spinning in a number of directions.
The proposal for a subsea cable leads to the second item that stands out with regards to the premier’s strategy, that is, his bizarre juggling act between the so-called maritime transmission route and the land-based route through Quebec.
Williams has stubbornly insisted that the maritime route is his preferred option, even though it would entail laying at least two underwater cables and building costly transmission towers through the Long Range mountains.
His “preference” for the route no doubt stems from frustration with Quebec. Last spring’s ruling by Quebec’s energy regulator sent a maddening mixed message — a proclamation of open access combined with rejection of every proposal submitted by Nalcor. It was a little like Monty Python’s cheeseshop sketch, where the customer is assured there is cheese in stock, but told each requested variety is unavailable.
Nonetheless, there’s little doubt that if the project is ever going to see the light of day, the Quebec route is the only viable option.
The premier’s rants and slurs on other parties — calling Quebec’s energy regulator a “kangaroo court,” for example — achieve little. But it would not be the first time he has come out the other end with at least something resembling a successful deal. His short-lived standoff with oil companies over Hebron development is a prime example.
Despite his heightened rhetoric about “no more giveaways” and the righteousness of his cause, there is one thing that supercedes all: money. This could be a very lucrative enterprise. And if reasonable dialogue is taking place beneath the radar, it may not matter what grandstanding goes on in the spotlight.
One can only hope that Williams, at least when he’s in full rhetorical flight, is not putting his money where his mouth is.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.