You’ve got to feel a little bit sorry for Nalcor. They’re following the rules, staying on point and on message as they try to respond to criticism of the Muskrat Falls project.
But the criticism just keeps coming, and Nalcor’s message — although consistent — is starting to sound repetitive.
There have been, in the last few months, more and more letters to the editor — and generally, more and more expressed public concern — about the cost of the project and, in particular, the cost implication that everyone cares about most: their own power bills.
Nalcor hasn’t ignored those concerns.
In fact, it has tried to stay ahead of them.
It’s right out of a communications textbook: Nalcor’s answers are always low-key, respectful and always repeat the message that Muskrat Falls is the lowest-cost power available to address an energy crisis it sees as looming in the province’s immediate future.
Many Nalcor letters end like this: “For additional information, we’ve published several blogs about wind which can be found on the Nalcor Leadership blog www.nalcorleader
shipblog.com.” (Sadly, the blog often includes the same information already sent out as letters to the editor, so the message seems even more like simple repetition.)
And it’s not just letters: Nalcor’s boss, Ed Martin, has made himself available for everything from mornings on open-line radio to one-on-one meetings with critics to explain the company’s position. Availability isn’t the problem.
The problem is, the letter-writers keep coming at the issue from different directions, barbarians storming the Nalcor castle from the front and back, above and beneath, and that leaves the Nalcor responses — “Muskrat Falls is the best of the two major options we considered” — looking stilted and formulaic.
Not only that, but as in many bureaucracies, it takes a while for Nalcor to respond.
When it answers a letter-writer five days after the letter appeared in the paper, that’s a major rear-guard action.
It’s not helped by the fact that the responses are seamless but remarkably similar — a variety of people write or respond on Nalcor’s behalf, and magically, they all sound exactly the same.
The mantra’s getting stale.
It’s not alway on point, either.
Faced with an editorial that points out that Hydro-Québec is bringing 2,000 megawatts of wind power onstream at 8.7 cents a kilowatt hour (and asking how Muskrat Falls can compete with power that will cost 14.3 cents a kilowatt hour) Nalcor responds that wind power isn’t a dependable option and that it isn’t being considered right now.
It doesn’t answer the competitiveness question, nor does it have a clear answer for why Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will have to pay 14.3 cents a kilowatt hour for power.
Meanwhile, outside the province, Muskrat Falls power will sell for what the market will bear — and that’s far lower than 14.3 cents, and will be for the foreseeable future, even before you start factoring in the costs of wheeling power through the grids in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and everywhere else.
Now, you can expect that letter-writers and other concerned citizens will start to question whether natural gas might be a more effective way to generate electrical power for the upcoming demand, and whether the cost of a Grand Banks-based natural gas operation — costed out at something around $1 billion several years ago — might not be a far cheaper option than the $6.2 billion it will cost to build Muskrat Falls.
The answer to that? Be ready for “natural gas wasn’t among the two successful scenarios that passed our pre-screening process, and of those two, Muskrat Falls is the lowest-cost alternative.” (Sorry to put words in your mouth, Mr. Nalcor, but I’ve heard those words too many times.)
You can’t complain that the utility isn’t proactive and you can’t say it’s not trying to get the message out.
Nalcor tweets, it Facebooks, it blogs — they’re trying, for sure.
Nalcor’s on message, without a doubt. But that message doesn’t seem to be hitting the mark.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.