Why rush the dam project?

Pam Frampton
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"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things."

- Winston Churchill

I've previously resisted the temptation to write about Muskrat Falls, primarily because so many other people have been enlivening the debate.

That being said, I've followed the discussion. I've read all of The Telegram's coverage and have proofread my way through nearly all of our letters to the editor, columns and editorials on the topic. I have also sat in on a briefing with Nalcor.

I've decided to finally broach the topic of Muskrat Falls, because as a citizen of this province who is lucky enough to have a regular forum, I feel obliged to share my view.

I will not delve into kilowatt hours, ratepayer formulas, decision gate figures or arguments about alternatives and least-cost options.

Let's keep this simple.

The government insists Muskrat Falls is the best energy choice for the future of the province, for many reasons - fiscal, environmental, logistical, practical.

Other members of the community - former politicians and civil servants and other concerned citizens - insist it is not the best option, or at least they are not convinced that it is.

Silencing the critics

Premier Kathy Dunderdale dismisses any criticism of the project out of hand.

A letter from former premier Brian Peckford suggesting there has not been appropriate impartial assessment of the project was quickly brushed aside, with Dunderdale implying Peckford is simply out of the loop.

"... A message from afar, about a debate that you haven't been engaged in, or public information sessions that you haven't participated in, then you know it's difficult for me to deal with," she said in February.

When the Public Utilities Board (PUB) released a report saying it could not determine that Muskrat Falls was the least-cost option because it did not have up-to-date information to work with, the premier was quick to shoot the messenger once again.

She said her confidence in the province's independent utilities regulator had been "undermined."

Former premier Danny Williams also jumped in to cast doubt on the PUB's assessment.

"I have a serious concern that the PUB quotes extensively the personal opinions of former bureaucrats and academia, while ignoring the world-class experts at Nalcor," he said.

When some people publicly criticized the province's refusal to grant the PUB more time to carry out its work, Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy dismissed their concerns as so much "white noise."

Good intentions

Now, I don't doubt that the professionals at Nalcor believe Muskrat Falls is the best and cheapest option to meet this province's energy needs.

I don't imagine CEO Ed Martin sits in his office, rubbing his hands together and cackling maniacally about how Muskrat Falls is going to make average Newfoundlanders and Labradorians pay through the nose for electricity, to the point that poorer citizens of St. John's have to huddle in the malls for warmth and ration their hard tack and tea.

I don't think that at all.

What I do think is that where there's smoke, there could be fire.

Sure, it could be fog or mist or steam, but there could be honest-to-goodness flames there as well.

And when I see concerned citizens in this province - some extremely articulate and well-informed and others not so sure of their position but still with nagging questions - writing letters and website comments, and speaking out on radio and TV about a public policy position they're not sure is the right one, then I get concerned.

Writing letters and voicing opinions take time, thought and energy, and none of those ordinary citizens are getting paid to raise red flags.

And while you suspect that some people will oppose a government venture just for the sake of opposing the government, criticism and questions about Muskrat Falls have crossed all party lines.

And so my question is, why is the government rushing this through when so many people feel unsettled and anxious about it and have raised legitimate questions?

If Muskrat Falls is indeed the best answer, that will become clear with the passage of time and careful scrutiny.

Speaking in the House of Assembly on June 11, Dunderdale - referring to the looming unveiling of new access to information rules - had this to say about Muskrat Falls:

"As far as Muskrat Falls is concerned, Mr. Speaker, there is no project in the history of this province that has more information released on it or more public discussion."

Well, when it comes to information, I tend to go for quality over quantity.

True, the government has released all kinds of information about Muskrat Falls, carefully crafted to bolster its own plan of action.

And we all know the government's plan, despite the window-dressing of debate in the House, environmental assessments and consultants' reports.

They're going ahead with Muskrat Falls, come hell or high water - and in this case that might be one and the same.

So there's not much merit in pointing to how much public discussion there's been if it's clear you haven't heeded any of it, except, of course, those bits that suit your cause.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Public Utilities Board

Geographic location: St. John's

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Recent comments

  • John Smith
    August 05, 2012 - 09:25

    Well, I guess my first post was rejected for some reason, so I'll try again. The lower churchill development, including Gull Island, and muskrat falls have been in development since 1967...so could developing a project for over 40 years be considered rushing???I don't think so. When the well educated, well experienced professionals at Nalcor, some with PHDs in the generation and distribution of electricity, come forward and say after years of scutiny that a dam at Muskrat would be far better than any other option, I tend to believe them. Then they go outside the province, and they choose one of the best companies on the globe, Navigant to take a look I said great, but not neccessary. Navigant came back and said the project is the lowest cost option, and we will need the power. Then we went to our pub, we gave them 2 million dollars and over nine months to look over the deal, including granting one extension. The PUB hired a well reknowned company out of Manitoba, MHI. They arer known throughout the world as experts when it comes to Hydro electricy. They also came back to say that muskrat is the lowest cost option, and that we will need the power. Our own well known economist Wade Locke has come out in support of the project. He explained to us with charts and graphs and MUN how the deal is the lowest cost option, and why we will need the power. Jack Harrris, Dean Macdonald, Danny Williams,have all come out in support of the project. So the question is....do you listen to what people like Maurice and Cyrill, who write in to the Tely, or do you listen to the professionals at Nalcor, who get up and go to work everyday and do this for a living?Lastly Ms. Frampton, you talk about the government's Plan of action...as if that's some sort of dirty word. We will be in a power deficit by 2017, and in true trouble by 2020. We have already wasted way to much time and money showing the naysayers why this deal is viable. Now we have more studies coming this fall to the house, showing why wind can't stand alone, and why gas to holyrood would cost untold billions of dollars for a nonrenewable resource. How many more times must they explain this projects merits? You will never convince people like Maurice and Cyrill, because they don't deal in reality, they don't use real data. Muskrat is a very good answer to our future energy needs, clean energy that comes totally from NL for NL....let's get it done!

    • David
      August 08, 2012 - 13:16

      You know why the "John Smith" gig is better than any above-ground, named person in this governemnt? Because if and when there's any sort of post-mortem to write, any hint of accountability or answers required from those who did their 'little bit' to help sell this snake oil, sugar-coat reality, and lead everyone down the garden path, John Smith wil ble nowhere to be found. He will simply go radio silent and vanish in the ether....more completely than even Newfoundland's timeless assortment of spineless (but at least identified) politicians do.

  • William Daniels
    August 05, 2012 - 08:05

    Seems most people are out of the loop except for this government.

  • Joseph McGrath
    August 05, 2012 - 05:42

    YAWN!!!!!!Lots of hot air in the comments section today.Get the Project started asp as it is long overdue.I support the government on this project even though I am not any kind of expert.NL must GROW or PERISH!!!!!

  • Cyril Rogers
    August 04, 2012 - 13:56

    Valid question, Ms Frampton, and one that needs to be seriously addressed but will not be answered. In the eyes of government, this project will proceed in spite of all kinds of concerns.......... and evidence to suggest that it has serious flaws and could very will hamper our financial ability for decades. The fact that, as Mr. Adams points out, we have minisucle growth, and little prospect of future growth, seems to be ignored by these people. Who are we building this project for? Certainly not for the people of this island, when much cheaper alternatives exist, as and if they are ever needed. Would you consider it prudent to buy a Bentley when a Volkwagen will do just as well? Why do we need the power? For whom? Nova Scotia? Do we really benefit when it will cost us a minimum of 16 cents to produce, at current projected project costs, while they get it for free. Yes, we get the transmission line in 35 years but they will charge us extra transmission costs to send it there and the true cost will be much higher than that. With cost over runs it could easily be triple that number and we will never be able to sell it. The mines in Labrador? Only if we subsidize 50-75% of it! That will be hundreds of millions that they are not factoring into their "least cost" scenario. Further, why are we being required to take 40% of it through NL Hydro when there will be very few days in the year when we use all of it......even if Holyrood is shuttered completely. By the way, Holyrood will not be shut down, since they need a backup system. Their "rising price for oil" scenario is also way off the mark, even over the last 5 years......and they tell us they know what the price of oil will be over the next 55 years!!! How gullible would we be to accept these kinds of prognostications? Nobody can know for certain but it is obvious that other technologies will be available for energy, and the more the price of oil goes up the more economical these newer technologies become.....long before oil reaches 200 per barrel. Muskrat Falls should be looked upon as a product of the past and one that will not pass the test of economic viability going forward. Its failure is evident in the government's INABILITY to borrow for much of the capital costs. What happens if we need another 2 or 3 billion to finish it off.....a prospect that is very likely. As for their "expert" advisors, MHI, they are reported to be 86% over budget on a dam project in Manitoba for which they are provided technical and financial advice. Think of the implications of such cost over runs on MF! Should that not be a red flag to all of us...even the government?

  • Winston Adams
    August 04, 2012 - 11:23

    Maurice, yes Nalcor puts a positive spin on Muskrat Falls, Just as you puts a negative spin. But why spin at all? 18,000 bbls per day burned at Holyrood when at full capacity. This apparently is correct and true,the problem being we hit that only 5 or 6 days in the winter. On average, at 44 percent capacity, that about 8000 bbls per day, costing over 100 million per year and considerable polution. You say it operated at capacity on average only 1.6 percent of the time. This is itself is as misleading as Nalcor and Kennedy. The middle ground better reflects the situation, and this unit is to handle the peak load, and so for a safety margin it should not be assumed we have lots of reserve, and the load is increasing some. And again, yes , Nalcor used the long term growth to spin their case, just as you use the shorter time frame to spin your assessment. In recent years we have lost significant industrial load, which keeps the recent load growth average down. But during this time, electric heating loads have continued to increase, and this load is expected to increase, failing a effecient heating innicative. There is now less room for Nalcor to err on the forecast as they did before, but may very well do so. the two big risks are 1. Corner Brook mill shutting down and 2. effecient heating conversiions; with out without government assistance to consumers. The potential in reduction by effecient heating is 600 Mw, more than MF average output. But to claim we should or need to gain this much immediately would be misleading. But chopping 30 Mw per year with efficient heating, and with modest new local water and wind addition will put the expensive MF on hold for 20 years or more, and stabalize prices to consumers. To spin, by Nalcor or you is to fearmonger. All of us should reason and reasonable numbers and calculations. I invite critism of my figures, least I too might be acused of spinning. Your extreme numbers may help bring attention to the financial dangers of this project, but it's past time for Nalcor and you to stop fearmongering. We will not at all need to ration electricity on the island, or be cold without heat. And a reasoned full assessment of all the options ( effecieny is presently not being assessed) will avoid a financial mess. As the title of Pam's article says " What's the rush with the dam"

  • saelcove
    August 04, 2012 - 10:33

    Do we have a government or does Nalcor run the government

  • saelcove
    August 04, 2012 - 10:20

    The head line should have what,s the dam rush

  • John Smith
    August 04, 2012 - 09:38

    The thing is though, Pam and Maurice, that it is not just the governement that has looked at this development. As I have said before, all I needed (as a citizen of this province, and a rate payer),is for the people at Nalcor to come forward and say that Muskrat is the best option...period. That would be good enough for me. Why? Because they have some of the best people in, not only Canada, but the entire world working there. They are not arm chair politicians, washed up has beens, retirerees with axes to grind, and the rest of the lunatic fringe that make up the naysayers group. They are professional, well educated, well experienced, experts in the field. What an insult it must be for those people to read the misleading, uninformed, and ignorant rants by many who are against the project. I guess, Pam, it comes down to are you going to listen to Brain Peckford, or the people at Nalcor, Navigant, MHI, Wade Locke, Dean Macdonald, Jack Harris, Darrel Dexter, and all the experts that those people have in their employ? Again, I think I know which group I will listen to, and it's not the octagenarians who write in to the Tely. It's the people who have dedicated their entire lives to the generation, and distribution of energy in our province, smart competent people. Yeah, I think I'll stick with those guys...

    • David
      August 05, 2012 - 09:52

      John Smith: it is precisely your kind --- the totally in-the-bag, politically blinkered, toadie mole ---- whose opinion on this issue is worth less than squadoosh. You are a hindrance to insight, another impedimet to asking for deserved answers, an extension (perhaps even one getting a taxpayer salary?) of the very government whose boots you lick. If this project is worth my money, the government and NALCOR should --- nay MUST --- be perfectly able and willing to make an airthight case for Muskrsat given the immense economic stakes....that legitimate public debate still rages ---- not on nuances or tangential issues, but on the most fundamental facts ---- speaks volumes.

    • John Smith
      August 06, 2012 - 08:15

      But why is my opinion not worth anything? Because I support the project? I can debate the merits of the project, if you say what you find bad about the project I can debate that with you. But the name calling thing...childish

    • David
      August 07, 2012 - 17:26

      Why should I be expected to have to navigate around the likes of you, an anonymous government mole? The government should be capable, willing and quite prepared to put forward it's case. Your bizarre hubris and self- importance is pathetically funny, though.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    August 04, 2012 - 08:14

    Very well said, Ms. Frampton. "carefully crafted to bolster its own plan". If there is one single thing that signaled the alarm bells for me, and spurred me on to read and understand more about this proposed project --- it is indeed that information has been 'carefully crafted' to give a one-sided, positive impression of its own plan......... Just to mention some carefully crafted positions:------ Early on, Nalcor claimed that its go-forward 0.8% annual 'compound' increase in demand was "conservative" because, after all, our historical 40-year average growth rate was 2.3% annually. Sounds 'reasonable', does it not? ........ Until you dig a little deeper and find out that 98% of that 2.3% historical increase can be attributed to the 20 year period 1970-1989. Over the last (and most relevant) 20-year period (from 1990-2010) our average annual growth rate has been only 0.1% annually (8 times less than Nalcor's so-called 'conservative' go-forward rate of 0.8%)......... Or perhaps we need to look at what Nalcor' vice-president in charge of Muskrat Falls, Glibert Bennett is fond of saying, who was the first one I heard say that Holyrood burns 18,000 bbls of oil a day operating at capacity in winter (Tom Marshall and Jerome Kennedy say the same thing), only when you dig a little deeper you find out that over the last 8 years, even during the worst winter months of Jan, Feb, and March, Holyrood needed to operate on average (not flat out), but on average only at 50% capacity, over the last 6 years that has GONE DOWN (not UP) to 44% capacity, and when it comes to how often it has to actually operate at CAPACITY, over the last 9 year period it needed to do so (at 18,000 bbl a day) on average for only 1.6% of the time each year --- or 5.5 days A YEAR -------- and last year? ----- NOT AT ALL -- ZERO. See www.vision2041.com