Sometimes, no news isn’t good news. In fact, no news might well end up being very bad news.
On Tuesday, Nalcor president and CEO Ed Martin met with the media to release a report on the Muskrat Falls project by the federal government’s independent engineer. Much of the report was released, but there are still areas that the province’s ratepayers — the people who will actually pay for the dam project — aren’t being allowed to see.
For example, in the current report, even the numbers for the project’s expected power output are blacked out for commercial confidentiality reasons. That’s a head-scratcher, and it leads you in an unsettling direction. Nalcor has always given the project’s power generation numbers before — their absence now suggests, first of all, that the predictions have changed and, second, that the new numbers aren’t as rosy as the original figures.
Why? Well, perhaps because Nalcor and the provincial government have always been in a rush to trumpet anything that looks like it improves the project’s economics. How many times have we been told that a federal loan guarantee “saves” ratepayers millions of dollars? Heck, you could lose count of the number of news conferences and speeches.
Meanwhile, Nalcor is grudgingly admitting that costs are going up and that the project may not be completed on its current timeline. The independent engineer echoed that position, suggesting that Nalcor should have had a higher contingency percentage for costs and a “lengthened project schedule.”
No one’s willing to say what the increased cost is at this point. Once again, that’s apparently information that would put Nalcor at a competitive disadvantage as it tries to nail down the costs for big-dollar contracts — at least, that’s what we’re being told.
Meanwhile, our Nova Scotian counterparts aren’t concerned about the costs or the timelines. They claim the Maritime Link will be done on time and within budget.
Nova Scotia Energy Minister Andrew Younger says Nova Scotians shouldn’t worry: if Muskrat Falls is late or more expensive than planned, contacts signed with Nalcor mean that Newfoundland and Labrador’s energy warehouse will either have to find electricity to meet the terms of the existing contract, or pay cash to cover Nova Scotia’s costs. (Nova Scotian ratepayers also have the protection of a public utilities board riding herd over electrical prices; here, the provincial government has essentially neutered our PUB, at least as far as Muskrat Falls is concerned.)
All of this is cast against the backdrop of a provincial government that is keen to recast itself as being even more open and accountable.
The pieces that are missing are, quite simply, a little alarming.
Only one thing is absolutely certain: however long it takes to finish, and however much it costs to build, electricity ratepayers will pay for it.
It would be nice to know what the bill might be.