So, all that’s old is new again — sort of. Faced with a report from the province’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) saying that the Nalcor case for Muskrat Falls wasn’t good enough — that “the information provided by Nalcor in the review is not detailed, complete or current enough” to determine whether the project was the best of the two options being considered, the provincial government is talking about a host of work to re-examine the project.
Leery of a debate on the project in a House of Assembly that Premier Kathy Dunderdale has labelled “dysfunctional” (herself no stranger to the heckling and abusive behaviour that seems to characterize our House), the government now says it plans to put together the most complete package of information possible to answer public concerns, followed by just the kind of House of Assembly debate that government minister after government minister has argued was completely unnecessary.
Truth be told, a House of Assembly debate in a majority-controlled House is really only window dressing.
You already know how it’s going to end and what will be decided.
The most startling thing about a House debate is why the Tories have been so against it from the start — refusing play in a game where they already hold the majority of the cards just makes them look nervous.
But further examination is a good first move; after all, if anything can be described as the crux of the PUB’s problem with its analysis of Muskrat Falls, it’s that it felt the information it was being asked to examine was already outdated and therefore imprecise.
More information is, without a doubt, going to result in a better decision.
But that’s not the only thing the province is going to do.
Premier Dunderdale also said Monday that once new numbers are available on Muskrat Falls — the numbers that will come at Decision Gate 3, the point in the project where Nalcor was expecting it to be sanctioned — the government will hire Manitoba Hydro International “to provide external and independent analysis of the Decision Gate 3 information prior to any decision on whether or not to sanction.”
In other words, even though the PUB had suggested its review should have been done later in the process, the PUB will not be asked to look at the project again, having blotted its copybook by stepping outside the tight confines of its terms of reference.
Now, there are good reasons for going back to MHI — chief among them being that the firm is already well familiar with the project.
But there is one other clear advantage, at least as far as the provincial government is concerned. And that’s buried in the premier’s news release on what she called the “puzzling” and “disappointing” PUB report released Monday: “The information available to the PUB in its review is the same information that was available to Manitoba Hydro International and the Consumer Advocate — both were able to reach a conclusion while the PUB has indicated it could not.”
A sign of just how bitter this whole battle is?
The PUB said it didn’t have enough information to answer the questions it was asked: Premier Dunderdale classed that as the PUB “walking away from its responsibility” and “wasting” the money used in the review.
Those are strong words to use about a quasi-judicial body charged with being impartial.
Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy, the chief stick-handler in government for Muskrat Falls, has lengthy experience as a defence lawyer.
In his former life, he would be well familiar with the term “judge-shopping.”
It’s when you angle to have a particular judge assigned to a case who is more likely to rule in your favour or, sometimes, to try to steer clear of a judge who’s likely to be less favourable to your cause.
In its examination of the project as consultants to the PUB, MHI summed up its analysis like this: “MHI finds that the Muskrat Falls Generating Station and the Labrador-Island Link HVdc projects represent the least-cost option of the two alternatives, when considered together with the underlying assumptions and inputs provided by Nalcor.”
That’s probably exactly the answer the province wanted to hear from the PUB.
Now, it sounds a little like the government wants to go back to MHI to hear it all over again.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.