It was an anticlimax, served with finger foods and serenaded by a choir. Monday at 6 p.m., right on time for evening television newscasts, Premier Kathy Dunderdale announced that Muskrat Falls, the electricity megaproject that has had almost as many formal announcements as a cat has lives, was officially sanctioned. The project will now officially move forward.
But also on Monday, there was the introduction of some particularly interesting legislation that’s crucial to making Muskrat Falls work financially, and while Bill 61 didn’t come with canapés, there are things about the legislation that might surprise citizens — and businesses — in this province.
Officially, it’s called An Act to amend the Electrical Power Control Act, 1994, the Energy Corporation Act and the Hydro Corporation Act, 2007. It’s a grab bag of rule changes to ensure that the provincial government can set electricity prices high enough to make Muskrat Falls financially viable — and to ensure that, even if there are cheaper sources of power, a power retailer like Newfoundland Power or a large industrial customer would not be allowed to build or use them. Looked at in the best light, it’s an attempt to keep anyone from making an end-run around the province’s Muskrat Falls power plans.
First, the legislation would allow the provincial cabinet to dictate to the Public Utilities Board what it can and can’t consider in hearings on electricity prices, including “the costs, expenses and allowances that are to be included in the rates, tolls and charges approved for a public utility, and the terms of that inclusion.”
The cabinet is also allowed to cancel or suspend public hearings by the board, and spells out that, “The Public Utilities Board shall implement the policies, procedures and directives of the Lieutenant-Governor in Council.” Call a spade a spade: it guts the PUB’s oversight of electrical prices.
The legislation goes further, though. It would also give Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro “the exclusive right to supply, distribute and sell electrical power or energy to a retailer or an industrial customer in respect of the business or operations of that retailer or industrial customer on the island portion of the province,” and stipulates that “a retailer or an industrial customer shall not develop, own, operate, manage or control a facility for the generation and supply of electrical power or energy either for its own use or for supply directly or indirectly to or for the public or an entity on the island portion of the province.”
The legislation also backdates its creation, saying those rules won’t apply to generation facilities that existed on Dec. 31, 2011, and declaring void any contracts for power that were signed before the legislation comes into force. The province also plans to exempt itself from any litigation as a result of the new law, stating that “a person is not entitled to compensation or damages from the Crown or a minister, employee or agent of the Crown arising from” the legislation, nor can they launch a court case as a result of the new law.
The irony, of course, is that the new rules give the province exactly the kind of control over the transmission and sale of electricity that successive governments have railed against when they were used to halt the transmission of electricity across other jurisdictions.
To put it bluntly: the government has said for years it should be able to wheel power across other electrical grids.
It’s now effectively banning access to wheel or even generate power here.
But of course, the end must somehow justify the means, right?