It’s easy to be rattled by the latest details to come out about Ottawa’s agreement to agree sometime in
the future to a loan guarantee for Muskrat Falls.
It’s a term sheet we haven’t seen yet, apparently agreed to at the last minute when it looked like the whole thing was falling apart. (Rushed, last-minute decisions made under pressure from opposing interests — yes, aren’t they always the best kind? They’ve always served us so well as a province. And, yes, that’s sarcasm.)
But strangely, cooler heads can sometimes prevail before provinces rush headlong into major developments.
Much has been made about Manitoba Hydro International’s (MHI) supportive review using Nalcor’s own numbers for the Muskrat Falls project.
It’s interesting, then, that MHI’s parent, Manitoba Hydro, is now being told by the Manitoba government that its forecasting for major projects isn’t good enough, and that those projects will have to undergo a full and independent review by a panel of that province’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) — something that, in this province, the Dunderdale government is avoiding like the plague.
Two weeks ago, the Manitoba government announced that major dam projects in that province needed to be reviewed.
“Building Keeyask and Conawapa represents a major economic development opportunity for our province,” said Dave Chomiak, the minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, in a news release.
“The purpose of the Needs
For And Alternatives To (NFAAT) review is to provide an independent assessment of the need for new generation and to compare the benefits of building new hydro generation to alternatives such as natural gas.”
The review will be done by a panel of that province’s PUB, and will examine everything from rate implications to declining export prices to the impact of shale gas development.
As the Winnipeg Free Press put it, “The shine of two new massive dams isn’t as shiny as it once was.”
Part of the problem, like always, is cost. The latest jump in the costs of the two projects that the government now plans to review saw
the Keeyask and Conawapa hydro dams jump from $4.59 billion and $6.33 billion, respectively, in 2009 to $5.64 billion and $7.77 billion now, a combined increase of 23 per cent.
But that’s only part of the cost increases: take the dams’ original price tags and Keeyask has a budget that’s risen by 47.5 per cent, and Conawapa by 56 per cent. And there aren’t even shovels in the ground yet. (This, after the utility’s last hydro dam, Wuskwatim, came in at something like 85.5 per cent over budget.)
There are other similarities as well: a bone of contention for the Manitoba regulator is that Manitoba Hydro wants to build a transmission corridor that will add three cents a kilowatt hour to the price of electricity (electricity that would go to both domestic and export customers) but wants the domestic customers in the province to pick up the full price for all customers.
Sounds a lot like Muskrat, where 40 per cent of the customers (ratepayers in this province) will pay 100 per cent of the tab for the project.
It’s not surprising that the review is something that Manitoba’s PUB has been looking for. Back in January, the board was blunt about the need for independent oversight.
“The board is unable to approve the higher rate increases requested by Manitoba Hydro because the utility’s business plan is incomplete, lacks required detail and has not been tested through what has been promised as a ‘Needs For And Alternatives To’ review by an independent tribunal that will have full access to the economic and financial assumptions which underpin Manitoba Hydro’s business plan,” the board wrote.
“Due to the hundreds of millions of dollars the province derives from Manitoba Hydro, the risks that will be borne by Manitoba Hydro’s domestic customers, and due to the economic and financial factors to be tested, such an NFAAT ought to be conducted by an independent tribunal with considerable expertise in the subject issues.”
Interestingly, the announcement of the review came the same day that Manitoba Hydro announced it had lost $13 million exporting electricity to the U.S. in the first six months of this year.
Muskrat Falls may be the best of all things. It may be the only option. But the last time our PUB looked at the project, there wasn’t enough information on the table to make that decision.
Here, the PUB won’t be asked to look again. In Manitoba, it’s a different story — maybe, with a different kind of ending for those who actually pay electric bills.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.