Muskrat critics are hard on the ears

Peter Jackson
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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

commentary editor.


Twitter: pjackson_NL

Organizations: Hydro-Québec

Geographic location: Muskrat, Quebec, Churchill River Gull Island

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Recent comments

  • Corporate Phsyco
    October 31, 2012 - 17:16

    This will be the biggest boondoggle in NL history.

    • Sorry Scott
      October 31, 2012 - 20:25

      You mean right after the Upper Churchill.

    • david
      November 01, 2012 - 17:22

      Churchill was no boondoggle, Scotty...just for us.

  • David
    October 31, 2012 - 16:18

    This entire "debate" (just wow...) is being won by the weak-minded and the simpletons by shouting down the sensible and the rightly skeptical. And Newfoundland has ever been is simply much less complicated to be lazy and stupid, and not to work too hard at figuring out anything, simulatneously being seen as "optimistic". This is a place where histroy has shown being the biggest, loudest BSer carries the day, and those inflicted wioth the necessarylimitation of with more reality-based, sober judgements are shouted down as heretics. Of course, histroy has also shown how "successful" that approach usually matter!

  • David
    October 31, 2012 - 16:06

    "Least cost" is entirely dependent on the alternative proposals chosen to compare and assess. Did anyone include the option of simply paying down the provincial debt, for a guaranteed minimum return of at least 5 or 6% per year, and then using the debt capacity in future to either build the dam when power supply & demand economics are much better defined, or putting the money to some better, similarly definite good use? I didn't think so.

  • Maggy Carter
    October 31, 2012 - 14:38

    The flaw in Jackson's logic is best illustrated by his last comment. He asks rhetorically, " Will we build it or not? If not, there’d better be a damned good reason." ..... On the contrary Mr. Jackson, most objective, rational, intelligent humans would challenge the proponent - NALCOR and Dunderdale - to provide a damned good reason for adding billions to the already massive debt of this province. It is in the nature of a regulator such as the PUB, for example, to demand proof that the status quo is not the best option. The PUB did exactly that in its report. It said that the proponent had not provided satisfactory proof that the electrical demand now exists, or will exist in the foreseeable future, to justify any massive capital investment - whether that be on the Muskrat project or the isolated island option. ... As for your suggestion that the 'no' side of this campaign is somehow more shrill than the 'yes', I think most discerning readers would disagree. All contentious issues will attract at least a few wing nuts on both sides of the divide. But the core of the public segment that questions Muskrat and the process leading to Muskrat is comprised by people and groups that are far more knowledgeable, reasonable and respectful than the sycophants who support it. My guess is that you are hearing and seeing only what you want. That is a fatal flaw in journalism.

  • Cyril Rogers
    October 31, 2012 - 14:02

    Peter, your column is another great example of shoddy journalism! You attack the people who are critical and attempt to dismiss their criticism whether valid or not. I don't profess to know Mr. Cabana's motives but I doubt he will make any money on Muskrat Falls. IF you read his blog, you will see that he puts a tremendous amount of research into his articles. Are they accurate? They appear to be but unless you can show us research you have done to refute his statements, you are simply parroting the government's line that people are simply naysayers. Your column, in my opinion, is irresponsible journalism, unless you are willing to dig deep and come up with your own numbers to support your assertions. I look forward to your future columns that show Mr. Cabana to be a shrill critic and inaccurate blogger.

    • I can believe you said that
      October 31, 2012 - 20:49

      Where's Maurice, the champion of the wrongfully attacked messengers? I'm sure he'd have something to say about your attack. Oh I forgot, it's okay to attack anyone that supports this project.

  • Winston Adams
    October 31, 2012 - 10:18

    Peter, your final statement that "a endless, fuel free, renewable energy should be appealing' Yes, this is the appeal of Muskrat Falls, and it is a powerful one.On the other hand, efficient heating reduces demand for heating and hot water by 2/3. This reliable method uses 1/3 the electricity, the other 2/3 of the energy coming from the adjacent earth or air just outside your house. This source is also free and endless, similar to the water that runs the turbines. The water is a thousand miles away, the other 5 to 50 ft away. The issue is cost, per kw of heat generated. Muskrat Falls will be in the range of 8000.00 to 30000.00 per kw. Efficient heating less than 1500.00 per kw. Muskrat falls will increase power bills by 31 percent by 2018, according to the Calculator. Efficient heating will REDUCE power bills by about 35 percent,not because the rate will go down, but because the 2/3 reduction of electricity for heatings lowers the bill by about 35 percent. Please check this out and ask why Nalcor hasn't considered this.Surely cost on the power bills should be the bottom line- for households.

  • Frank
    October 31, 2012 - 10:13

    Maurice is like a broken record!

  • Brad Cabana
    October 31, 2012 - 09:32

    It's sad to see the level of journalism at the Telegram sink to this level. Whether it be myself, the 2041 Group,, or any of the many people and groups opposed to Muskrat Falls, we have a right to be heard.By way of example, Hydro Quebec is not entitled to "equal access" to Churchill falls power. It is entitled to: "Section 6.2 Sale and Purchase of Power and Energy:CFLCO shall deliver to Hydro Quebec at the Delivery Point such power and energy as Hydro Quebec may request. The 1999 Shareholder's Agreement, between NL Hydro and Hydro Quebec, gives Hydro Quebec a veto over any corporate moves CFLCO may try and take that would change that position in sections 3.4.6 and 3.4.7. So, instead of writing articles attacking people's credibility, perhaps it is time that Peter Jackson assessed his own.

    • Ben
      October 31, 2012 - 10:45

      Cabana, you're a complete joke and buffoon. Stop discrediting the side opposed to Muskrat Falls with your onslaught of irrational and dramatic nonsense, baseless charges and general silliness. You do not help your own cause, or the anti Muskrat Falls cause. Get a grip, son.

    • Peter Jackson
      November 01, 2012 - 08:57

      Dear Brad: Typically, you've misquoted me. I did not say, simply, that Hydro Quebec is entitled to equal access to power. I did say it has equal access to "extra" power as deemed available by CF(L)Co. It's in Bern Coffey's argument, if you need a refresher. Second, I said, quite clearly, that the water management agreement acknowledges, repeatedly, that the contract takes precedence. HQ only has a veto over changes that would affect the ability of CF(L)Co to fulfill contract. Find me a line that shows how co-operation between UC and MF would affect that. Remember, water management is not a commercial contract.

  • saelcove
    October 31, 2012 - 09:23

    What will the final cost be if it went up 1 billion in 2 years, so at that rate it will cost 12 billion or more yes no ,

  • Maurice E. Adams
    October 31, 2012 - 09:10

    I could have perhaps better summarized the essence of your article Peter by stating that you seem to have fallen into the tactic of attacking the messenger instead the message. You speak to the credibility of the person, when it is the credibility of the facts and argument that he or she makes that should be your focus. I would have expected better.

    • I cant believe you said that
      October 31, 2012 - 14:39

      Oh yes, the poor old messenger being attacked again. Selective vision or hearing must be grand.

  • Too Funny
    October 31, 2012 - 08:33

    That's a good one. Write a column about those noisy "shrills" that are opposed to this project and they immediately pounce on it to prove your point.

  • Ken Collis
    October 31, 2012 - 08:24

    I'm sorry Peter, but the prime question is not 'will we build it' but 'Can we afford it?' Mr. Cabana is to most of us is not an issue or anyone to listen to. We want opinions from people who have nothing to gain either way, and who have koweledge on ALL aspects of the topic. Engineering, Business, financing, government, etc... You usually have more insight than this article suggests.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    October 31, 2012 - 07:16

    A critic of the critics ---- except with virtually no facts to support non-position. Not your best work Peter. SOME FACTS: Nalcor says Holyrood burns 18, 000 bbls a day operating at capacity (except it doesn't operate at capacity --- not one day in 2011, and only about 1 day on average over the last 5 years)........ Increasing residential demand justifies Muskrat (except when it does'nt ---- residential energy demand DECREASED 17% from 1990 to 2008, and at the rate electricity is replacing the 15% of residents still using oil, total residential electricity demand will DECREASE about the same time that Muskrat comes on stream (all oil burning residences will have been replaced by electricity -- no potential growth in the residential market remaining ----- and for Muskrat to be viable IT REQUIRES FIFTY (50) YEARS (not 10 years) of increased residential demand. ........ I could go on, and on , and on, and on --- but what does it matter that there is no market for Muskrat (to say nothing of the SMALL FACT that with Muskrat, Nalcor will install more than 50 MW "MORE" thermal NET capacity than the 466 MW that our already existing 466 NET capacity, full paid for, Holyrood thermal generator already provides (a $1.5 billion asset that still has half its useful life left)..... I guess none of these facts, according to Peter, have any credibility. I guess Nalcor's 50 year forecast for oil prices, 50 year forecast for interest rates, 50 forecast for island demand, 50 forecast for natural gas prices, 50 forecast for technology changes, 40 year demand forecast error track record, and on, and on, and on --- are all 'credible'. Even MHI warns, repeatedly about relying on the "magnified risk" associated with 50 year forecasting. But no matter. None of these are credible, are they Peter? Perhaps if you did your own research, you would find that they were.

  • Cold future
    October 31, 2012 - 07:01

    "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." You have got to be kidding-is this a comedy article? The take or pay contract is to ensure that the captive domestic ratepayer puts in the shortfall when power produced at 30 cents per KWh at Muskrat is sold for 5 to 10 cents per kwh on the mainland. It is hard to imagine that any amount of support from the federal governmeent in the form of direct subsidy or loan guarantee or any other creative accounting can make up for the excess cost of this project.

  • Greg
    October 31, 2012 - 06:31

    More like there better be a damned good reason to build it. It has become painfully obvious what that reason is and who it is for. C'mon, Peter. And when Cabana reads your criticism, he will possibly threaten to sue you for it! I agree with you on him. He is obsessed and totally discredits the anti side. It is a shame.