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Pam Frampton: Muskrat Falls audit must wait? Tell us why


Published on August 12, 2017

Muskrat Falls protest, Colonial Building, St. John’s.

©Joe Gibbons/The Telegram file photo

Premier Dwight Ball says he can’t call an immediate forensic audit into the $12.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project because it could cause further costly delays.

Pam Frampton

He says he’s been told as much by the auditor general, the consumer advocate, the Department of Justice, and the board and CEO of Nalcor.

What I say to all those people and entities is: tell us why.

Someone’s say-so isn’t enough.

I tried to get an explanation from Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall this week, but he was out of town. But I’ll keep asking, because it’s an important piece of information — one of many the public deserves to have so we can make up our own minds as to whether the premier is making the right call.

This Crown corporation-led project went from an estimated cost of $7.2 billion to $12.7 billion in five years. Many members of the public would like an explanation of how that happened and are no longer satisfied to simply accept what they are told as gospel.

Premier Dwight Ball
Western Star file photo

From what I can tell, forensic audits involve interviewing key current and former employees, both formally and informally depending on their role; reviewing financial records, contracts and other correspondence. It doesn’t entail bands of hard-hatted, steel-toed-boot-clad forensic auditors fanning out onto construction sites and shutting down heavy equipment.

Nalcor Energy president and CEO Stan Marshall
The Telegram file photo

While I understand producing reams of documents and answering questions takes time, a forensic audit can be done in mere months and I’m not sure how it would significantly delay “this critical construction stage,” as the premier put it.

Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady
The Telegram file photo

This Crown corporation-led project went from an estimated cost of $7.2 billion to $12.7 billion in five years. Many members of the public would like an explanation of how that happened and are no longer satisfied to simply accept what they are told as gospel.

If there are legitimate reasons why an audit now is not feasible, then show us the facts.

In British Columbia, the new NDP government is following through on an election promise by having the contentious $8.8-billion Site C dam project reviewed independently. As Rob Shaw wrote in the Vancouver Sun on Aug. 2, the exercise is “to see whether it should continue, be paused or completely cancelled.”

During the three-month review, the 2,200 workers onsite will remain on the job, but no new contracts will be let.

Like Muskrat Falls, B.C.’s megaproject has its champions and critics. As Shaw reports: “The Site C dam project, which was started under the Liberals in 2014, has been defended by B.C. Hydro as a necessary way to provide clean, reliable power for the province’s future needs. The NDP and Greens have called it a costly boondoggle when alternative wind, solar and geothermal power sources were not properly investigated.”

Gee, where have we heard that before?

In June, B.C. Hydro’s CEO warned that any delays beyond June 30 — during a critical phase of construction — “would result in $630 million in additional costs and a year’s delay.”

B.C. Energy Minister Michelle Mungall now says that figure was wrong, and that they’ve found a workaround that will not increase costs or cause delays.

There are people in this province who don’t want a forensic audit, seeing it as some futile exercise in navigating water that’s already under the bridge.

Others want an audit, confident that it would vindicate Muskrat’s defenders, including its Progressive Conservative government proponents and Nalcor Energy.

Still more see a forensic audit as a means of uncovering the potential mismanagement of public funds and other blunderings.

On July 24, Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady wrote to Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall saying that the province was “looking to initiate an investigation into the decision-making process surrounding the Muskrat Falls project.”

“At this time, I would like you to ensure that all records that may be relevant are secured for the purpose of the investigation…,” she wrote. “I further ask that you ensure that records prepared for Nalcor by its contractors as well as by previous board members, officers, and employees are returned to Nalcor for preservation.”

That, at least, is a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see if SNC-Lavalin’s refused 2013 risk assessment report turns up.

At the very least, given that we have been saddled with a $12.7-billion-and-counting “investment” we can’t afford, the public deserves complete and utter accountability.

Starting now.

 

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton