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Brian Jones: ‘Rate mitigation’ reveals lies behind Muskrat Falls

When the juice finally flows from Muskrat Falls, ratepayers will see their electricity bills double.
When the juice finally flows from Muskrat Falls, ratepayers will see their electricity bills double.

A new phrase has entered the province’s vocabulary: “rate mitigation.” Quick, somebody inform the h’editors at the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. There is a new, self-defining phrase to go alongside “10-42,” “resettlement” and “out-migration.”

Brian Jones

Accusations that Premier Dwight Ball has done nothing for the province during his almost year-and-a-half tenure are now demonstrably false — he has given us “rate mitigation.”

Well, the phrase, anyway. The actual thing is yet to be defined and implemented.

It had to come. The epic disaster that is the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project has, thus far, been a mistake and foolishness in merely political terms. As slow and expensive work on the white elephant progresses, and the beast laboriously rises to its knees, the mistake becomes more personal.

The day when the first electricity bills arrive in the mail showing a rate of 22 cents per kilowatt hour rather than 11 cents kWh is no longer in the distant future. On that day, whatever supporters of the Muskrat Falls project remain will realize they’ve been suckered. Who will they blame? Will they look in the mirror and through their tears cry a lament, “I should have paid attention!”

Lest they blame the Liberals, Ball is already talking about “rate mitigation.”

Presumably, RM will be the government’s attempt to dull the inevitable public anger when the Muskrat Falls bills come due.

The premier offered no details this week, but the government’s options are limited.

RM could involve a direct subsidy to ratepayers who have lower incomes — however that is defined.

That approach could be problematic. A $500 monthly power bill doubling to $1,000 is going to be a dilemma for a lot more people than just those at the lower end of the salary scale. It will be a challenge for the middle-class as well. The Muskrat Falls fiasco is an equal-opportunity disaster.

Perhaps Ball, Bennett and Co. will opt for a direct subsidy to Nalcor Energy, enabling “savings” to be passed down the line — literally — to electricity consumers.

Although, with the subsidy approach the government’s debt will continue to grow if it annually hands over, say, $600 million to Nalcor.

Most importantly, rate mitigation will be an admission of the ineptness, lies, manipulation and propaganda that propped up the Muskrat Falls project from the beginning.

Astute observers will recall that, circa 2010, the Tory government touted Muskrat Falls hydropower as a cash generator for the province, as electricity would be sold to the New England states, New York and beyond.

“Show us the contracts,” a sharp Telegram pundit opined as early as 2011. (OK, that might have been me, but it also could have been Wangersky or Frampton.)

No contracts were ever produced, of course, and the cash cow predictably morphed into the massive white elephant that will soon lumber through the provincial economy and decimate much in its path.

Consumer demand? Watch it drop as electricity bills mount.

Government debt? It will go up in direct correlation to “rate mitigation.”

Board of Trade? Its members’ cluelessness about economic drivers is already exposed.

This week, officialdom finally admitted Muskrat Falls will cost the government money rather than earn money for it.

Some people have suggested a public inquiry is needed to determine how a monumental mistake such as Muskrat Falls could have happened. There is no need. The entire sorry process is a matter of public record: disallowing the Public Utilities Board’s involvement, amending the Electric Power Control Act to give Nalcor a monopoly, the lack of interest from private investors, each preposterous “decision gate.”

A public inquiry would waste $3 million to arrive at an answer that is already known. How did this disaster win approval? How was this economic blunder foisted on the public? The answer is short and painful: people weren’t paying attention.

 

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at bjones@thetelegram.com.

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