When you go whale watching in the spring, look for seagulls. If dozens of seagulls are circling a specific spot on the water — or, even better, floating on it — it could be a sign a whale is feeding below. Humpbacks must be messy eaters, leaving lots of tidbits for gulls to feast on.
Similarly, if you’re looking for ways to make money, watch for circling businessmen, who by their very nature cannot pass up an opportunity to earn profits. Don’t get your backs up, gentlemen. That is not a criticism.
Recall 2003, when Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians) elected Danny Williams as premier and prime defender, and began the long-overdue process of leaving the 18th century behind and becoming as rich as Alberta and as socially advanced as P.E.I.
Williams touted development of the Lower Churchill’s hydroelectric capacity, and went looking for private investors to get the turbines going.
The ensuing silence was never — and has never — been fully explained.
Corporate investors for the planned project at Muskrat Falls were nowhere to be found. Details about who was asked to invest, and why they declined, were never released.
Almost a decade has passed, but this failure to find private investors to develop the Lower Churchill remains one of the most important aspects of this controversial issue.
To use an easy analogy, if Muskrat Falls really will churn out profits — as the provincial government continues to insist — investors should be circling it like hungry gulls.
Did the corporate executives who declined to invest in Muskrat Falls merely say, “No thanks,” and then engage Williams in polite chitchat about hockey? Or did they outline their reasons in writing? If anyone has the answer, please let the rest of us know.
The provincial government never did.
But what the CEOs and chairmen of the boards said or didn’t say is far less important than what they did. Or, more accurately, what they did not.
They did not invest. They did not put company money into developing Muskrat Falls.
That alone provides plenty of information to the public, the voters, the ratepayers. In this instance, we can reverse a cliché: “Lack of action speaks louder than a lack of words.”
You don’t have to go far to find a major player in the North American hydroelectricity industry.
Fortis Inc. has offices in downtown St. John’s. It owns utilities and hydroelectric assets in Ontario, Alberta, B.C. and the Caribbean. Newfoundlanders (and Labs) are most familiar with it as the parent company of Newfoundland Power.
Fortis was among the companies asked by the provincial government to invest in Muskrat Falls. It declined.
It would be interesting to see the napkin upon which Fortis president and CEO Stan Marshall jotted down the estimates — construction costs, transmission, labour, power rates, demand, profits, losses, etc. If only the waiter had hung onto that napkin, he might have been able to make a huge contribution to the ongoing debate.
But Fortis and Marshall released no figures, understandably.
All they did was say the company does not get involved as a minority player in government projects.
As The Telegram reported in May 2011, Marshall told Fortis shareholders, “Without going into the merits of any project, we wished them well, but we do not get involved with minority situations with Crown corporations.”
A reader can’t help but add, “unless healthy profits are in the offing.”
The St. John’s Board of Trade publicly supports developing Muskrat Falls.
Of course it does. Strangely enough, this group of capitalists isn’t clamouring to invest in the project.
Apparently, Muskrat Falls is a great idea only if taxpayers’ money is being blown. Private money, not so much.
Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at email@example.com.