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Meet Uncle Gnarley: Muskrat Falls’ prolific doomsayer blogs in turbulent times


Published on July 17, 2017

Des Sullivan is the prolific author behind the Uncle Gnarly blog, which has grown to become the internet nexus for in-depth criticism of the Muskrat Falls project.

©James McLeod/The Telegram

On the name alone, it can be a little bit hard to take seriously, but “Uncle Gnarley” has carved out a spot for itself in the N.L. political sphere as a nexus for criticism and analysis of Nalcor.

A screen grab of the Uncle Gnarley blog.

In the past week, Des Sullivan, the primary author behind the blog, published a legal document dealing with the Mud Lake flooding close to Muskrat Falls this spring and an analysis of an obscure academic paper raising concerns about the stability of the North Spur. And in recent months it has become a clearinghouse for anonymous whistleblowers, op-eds, and an opinion piece from former premier Brian Peckford.

At Confederation Building, and among the people who watch Confederation Building closely, “Uncle Gnarley” is treated with a heavy dose of skepticism, but they all know about it, and plenty of them read it.

And as Muskrat Falls has gone off the rails, from hydroelectric saviour to $12.7-billion boondoggle, the following has grown.

It’s sort of an elite group of people that read this thing; they’re sort of the nerds, the policy nerds.

David Vardy, sometimes guest blogger
and former chair of the Public Utilities Board

“I don’t want to be that apocalyptic person on the street corner with the sign, because I have no better powers of prediction than the next person. … I’m more of a process person,” Sullivan said, in a lengthy interview with The Telegram.

“There is a right way for institutions to behave. There is a right way for politics to behave.”

 

Coming of age

Sullivan’s political coming of age was as a staffer in the premier’s office of Frank Moores, and then later Peckford. Since leaving government in 1986, he’s been in the real estate business.

He said he mostly kept quiet about politics, until 2012 when “Uncle Gnarly” appeared.

“I was brought to the blog because I had started writing some stuff to The Telegram … but of course, The Telegram couldn’t print nearly as much as I wanted to write,” he said.

The early post featured conversations between Sullivan and the fictional character of Uncle Gnarley, but that fell by the wayside for the sake of expediency.

 

Not normal times

Sullivan said that he feels like these aren’t normal times for the province; a tsunami of economic hardship and deficit spending is hitting the province, and the Muskrat Falls project stands to make things dramatically worse.

Sullivan is unapologetically opinionated, and some of although he says his suspicion towards Nalcor has been vindicated repeatedly over the years.

“I would certainly have to acknowledge that I’m more activist than journalist, but I’m not interested in waving a flag for any ideological purpose. I have no axe to grind in that regard,” he said.

“There’s no question that The Telegram or some entity would take a different approach, but this is not The Telegram. This is a blog.”

David Vardy, a former chair of the Public Utilities Board, sometimes writes guest posts for the blog, and said that it’s important to not overstate the influence of Uncle Gnarley.

“I think the blog plays a role because even though very few Newfoundlanders and Labradorians read it, I think the politicians do,” he said.

“It’s sort of an elite group of people that read this thing; they’re sort of the nerds, the policy nerds.”

 

Willing to be aggressive

Vardy said one of the reasons that the blog has filled a void in the Muskrat Falls discussion is because Sullivan is more willing to be aggressive.

“I think media people are very fearful about what they report, because they don’t want to be in court. And the fact that Des is not a poor man makes it easier to do what he’s doing,” he said.

“Des has more propensity to take risk, and I think generally, media is highly averse to taking risk.”

Part of the reason why it’s still a niche crowd might be that the blog posts routinely run thousands of words long; Sullivan said he spends 30-40 hours a week working on his writing.

“I understand that most people don’t want much over 200-300 words these days in any article. The problem I have is that Muskrat is a project of some great complexity, and to attempt that in 200 or 300 words would be foolish,” he said.

“If I lose a given constituency because I have been too long-winded, I apologize. I am sorry, but in my judgment the piece warranted that kind of explanation.”

 

jmcleod@thetelegram.com