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Pam Frampton: Another round at the PUB

Protesters outside the Public Utilities Board building on Torbay Road in St. John’s Thursday. — Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
Protesters demonstrate against higher electricity rates outside the Public Utilities Board building in St. John’s. — Telegram file photo

Since the early days of the Muskrat Falls project, various government administrations have attempted to use the Public Utilities Board as a lever in their political machinations.

 

Former premiers Danny Williams and Kathy Dunderdale both criticized the PUB for refusing to say Muskrat Falls was the “least cost option” to meet the province’s energy needs, even though the PUB — an independent body — did so on the grounds it hadn’t been given all the data it needed to make an informed decision.
“When I read the report brought down by the PUB, I was deeply disappointed in the indecisive nature of the report; and more so I was troubled by the conclusions put forward by the board largely based on opinions of private citizens as opposed to the experts at Nalcor and Manitoba Hydro,” Williams said via news release in 2012, after he had gotten out of politics.

Dunderdale, who inherited Williams’ fondness for hyperbole, declared in November 2012 that the PUB had “failed the people of this province.”

There was no mention of the fact, of course, that it was their Progressive Conservative party that tied the PUB’s hands when it came to the electricity rate-setting process for Muskrat Falls, even though ensuring that rates are “just and reasonable” is a key tenet of the PUB’s mandate.

“The government has directed the PUB that whatever costs are associated with building Muskrat Falls will have to be passed on directly to ratepayers,” The Telegram reported at the time.

The Dunderdale administration also refused to give the PUB the three-month extension it said it needed to conduct its review, yet later baldly claimed, “We have already sent this project to the PUB, and the PUB concurred with Nalcor and with (Manitoba Hydro International) that this was the least-cost project for a real need for power here in the province.”

That was not the case. And when pressed by the opposition to send Muskrat Falls back to the PUB for consideration, Dunderdale refused that too, saying it would probably delay the project by a year and the exercise would cost more than $300 million.

(We may never know what money and time might have been saved had the PUB been allowed to do its work.)

Now the Liberals are in power and are using the PUB to distract voters from what is or is not going on behind the scenes to mitigate the exorbitant electricity rates expected once Muskrat Falls comes on stream.

Dunderdale’s position was shored up by that of then Natural Resources minister Jerome Kennedy, who said cutting the PUB out of the process was necessary to reassure lenders, which would protect the provincial government in the event of project failure.

Let’s see — double the original cost, years behind schedule; sounds a bit like project failure to me.

Now the Liberals are in power and are using the PUB to distract voters from what is or is not going on behind the scenes to mitigate the exorbitant electricity rates expected once Muskrat Falls comes on stream.

Does anyone believe that Premier Dwight Ball’s and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady’s jubilant announcement two weeks before a byelection — that the PUB has been restored to its rightful place in the Muskrat Falls tableau — was anything but strategic timing?

Of course the PUB should be involved, and should have been three years ago, as soon as the Liberals took office.

But the PUB’s final report is not required until January 2020, months after the provincial election in 2019. Even the mildest of cynics would have a hard time accepting that as coincidence.

What it amounts to, is this: just as Dwight Balls’ Liberals complained upon taking office in 2015 that they had been prevented by the outgoing Tories from knowing the ugly truth about the province’s finances — and that citizens had essentially voted in the dark because of it — citizens in 2019 will have to vote not knowing what sort of bill is hanging over their heads because of Muskrat Falls, until some sort of reckoning comes in 2020.

By then, if Newfoundlanders and Labradorians vote true to form, either the Liberals or the Tories will be firmly ensconced in the halls of power and the game will begin once again.

Anyone feel like they’re being played?

Pam Frampton is a columnist whose work is published in The Western Star and The Telegram. Email pamela.frampton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

Recent columns by this author

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