If the PUB was the jury in a criminal trial, you might say it just delivered a nullification verdict.
Basically, it did a bunch of things it wasn’t supposed to do, and didn’t do the one thing it was asked to do.
Until Monday, the Muskrat Falls hydro project had been given a relatively free ride in the oversight process. A private review by Navigant gave it the green light. Manitoba Hydro said the numbers it was given pretty well add up.
A joint federal-provincial assessment panel endorsed the project overall, although some of the environmental shortcomings it found are currently being used in court action by third parties.
But the Public Utilities Board wouldn’t play ball. It discussed, at length, the forbidden topic of alternatives to the two scenarios provided by the Crown’s energy firm, Nalcor. And it spelled out the long and ultimately unfruitful efforts to extract updated information.
There’s one important difference between the PUB and the other consultants contracted to look at the $6.2-billion project.
Manitoba Hydro and Navigant were hired to offer an opinion. They have little to lose in handing in a positive verdict, particularly if the numbers and parameters they’re given already point to that conclusion.
The PUB, on the other hand, is the province’s own regulator. It is much more incumbent on it to make sure the province’s best interests are represented.
PUB chairman Andy Wells got where he did through the same man who heralded the Muskrat Falls plan — former premier Danny Williams. It is hardly in Wells’ interest to undermine the legacy of his benefactor.
This is important, because the current administration — like the last — seems hell bent on colouring every criticism it hears as partisan tripe or negative niggling.
Yes, there are a handful of people in this province who are determined, rightly or wrongly, to kill Muskrat Falls outright. They have made their mission clear, and pound it home at every opportunity.
But most questions about the project stem from a simple desire to be convinced.
These citizens aren’t satisfied with vague assurances from Nalcor or provincial ministers. They want to see that other options have been fairly ruled out. Show the research, show the numbers.
When civil engineer Steven Bruneau provides a detailed presentation on how natural gas can and has been used to run cheaper, cleaner generating plants — and that it’s already collected and stored in abundance off our shores — you can’t just write it off. You can’t, as Premier Kathy Dunderdale did, say the government can’t be bothered with some local expert giving a talk at MUN.
If oil companies say they’re not interested in selling natural gas, as the premier states, we should then examine why it’s not worth their while.
There are other instances in Nalcor’s research where alternative energy sources are excluded in one scenario and included in another.
In a submission to the PUB, former PUB chairman David Vardy pointed out how reclaiming power from the Upper Churchill is one of the few future certainties we have.
“Under the interconnected (Muskrat Falls) plan, Nalcor does include Churchill Falls power starting in 2057, yet we are told that 2041, some 16 years earlier in time, is too uncertain to consider Churchill Falls as an option,” Vardy told the hearings.
On Monday, the premier finally agreed to hold an exclusive debate on the project, once new information has been provided by Nalcor later this spring. And she will refer the matter again to Manitoba Hydro (but not the PUB).
This is good news, and Dunderdale is to be commended for finally doing what ought to have be done in the first place. Let’s hope she and her ministers will lose the dismissive tone and entertain every honest question on its face.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.