I won’t go as far as to say I’m leaning towards supporting the Muskrat Falls project. But I will say I’m becoming more annoyed with the shrillness of its critics than that of its advocates.
The project is understandably controversial. It will cost billions of dollars, and estimates show the margins are relatively small and depend on several variables. Former premier Danny Williams calls it a no-brainer; in fact, a lot of excruciating number crunching went into deeming it the least-cost option.
A couple of key areas require clearer focus. One is the prediction of rising demand. The demands of industry are reasonably straightforward. But private customer usage is a different matter.
Nalcor, the Crown-owned proponent, uses factors such as an aging population, rising personal wealth and increased use of home electronics to justify its forecast of increased usage. It does not place any significant weight on conservation efforts. Customers faced with relentless price hikes may decide to think otherwise.
Another area that requires better explanation is the degree to which ratepayers will benefit from any savings Nalcor gains through sales of excess power. Right now, it appears the answer to that is zero.
There are endless avenues to explore when it comes to finding holes in this project, but quite a few are dead ends. And I think that’s certainly the case with the legal issues uncovered by the anti-Muskrat group, 2041 Energy.
Lawyers Bern Coffey and Dennis Browne argued last week that Quebec could veto water management measures taken on the Churchill River to accommodate both Churchill Falls and Muskrat Falls. That’s because the water management agreement between the two is subservient to the contract between Churchill Falls and Quebec.
Well, yes it is. The contract takes precedent. That is spelled out clearly by all parties.
But what clause would cause a problem? The only one highlighted is a line that states Hydro-Québec must have equal access to any extra power deemed available to the Churchill Falls plant.
In actual fact, there is always extra power available to the plant, because the reservoir system behind it is massive. It is the second largest reservoir in the world — 50 times bigger than those that would service Muskrat Falls and its sister site, Gull Island, combined.
There is no evidence to suggest the Churchill Falls plant could ever fall short of its contractual obligations. In any case, Nalcor will be able to transmit power back to Upper Churchill from the Muskrat plant if need be.
The whole argument is a bit of a potshot. It doesn’t really address whether Muskrat Falls is a worthwhile project or not. 2041 Energy billed itself as a group seeking alternatives to Muskrat. So far, it hasn’t done much to address that.
Other soldiers in the anti-Muskrat war have come up with even more tenuous angles. Former multi-party leadership hopeful Brad Cabana has been carpet-bombing social media with wild accusations about conspiracies and coverups. His favourite hobby horse is the notion that the project was cooked up solely to give cheap power to mining companies such as Alderon.
Cabana is the most shrill of them all. He will latch onto any unrelated tidbit of news or gossip to spin something negative. He’s truly obsessed — and utterly blind to the validity of any of the mud he slings.
There are other critics who fall somewhere in between. But one of the common threads is that many seem willing to just grasp at any straw that comes along, and this reflects poorly on their credibility.
On a broad scale, the prospect of endless, fuel-free, renewable energy should be appealing, especially in an era where gas and oil reserves are becoming increasingly unpredictable. It will take a much more powerful, consolidated argument to truly blow it out of the water.
Now that the final estimates for the project have been released, it’s time to focus on the core issues. Will we build it or not? If not, there’d better be a damned good reason.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s