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Pam Frampton: Muskrat Falls was always a done deal, and a bad one

Workers are seen during concrete forming work on the spillway Muskrat Falls in a July 2015 photo
Workers are seen during concrete forming work on the spillway Muskrat Falls in a July 2015 photo

Five years ago, with the Muskrat Falls project barrelling towards sanction, the government was having a hard time staying on point in defending it.

Pam Frampton

At the time, in November 2012, I wrote: “One week the project was all about clean energy, the next it was job creation, then it was all about being an affordable energy source, then it was a means of foiling Quebec, then it was a lure for mining companies.”

The Progressive Conservatives’ sales pitch was scattershot; they threw out a whole bunch of messages and hoped something would resonate with people. It was confounding, not effective, and I wrote in the same column, “you can’t blame people for being suspicious about the government’s single-minded drive to get the deal done. Let’s face it, we’ve suffered our share of boondoggles in this province, so people are naturally leery — and wisely so — when billions of dollars of their money are at stake.”

Many people worried that the project might be far more than we needed or could afford.

In fact, if you look back at how it was being sold, most of the government’s assertions have come to naught. It’s not affordable energy, and it’s not even particularly clean. Writing in the Globe and Mail on Oct. 10, 2016, in an article titled “The dirty news about ‘clean’ hydropower projects,” Konrad Yakabuski says of such ventures: “they are not, as their promoters suggest, emissions-free. And their overall environmental and social impacts, given the ecosystem destruction involved in their construction and their effects on aboriginal lifestyles, may be high.”

As for foiling Quebec, which can seek out markets for its excess power and deliver it efficiently via existing infrastructure, we’re still building ours and the only people being foiled are the ratepayers left to pay for it.

In terms of demand, our population is in decline and there has been no huge surge for extra power, with mining projects being shuttered and delayed.

Now, if our low voter turnout at every level of politics is any indication, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians tend to be an ambivalent lot.
But there were plenty of well-informed people challenging government’s argument for Muskrat Falls from the beginning, both through presentations to the Public Utilities Board and through the media. Unfortunately, those strong voices went unheeded, and we’re all the poorer for it.
Writing in a letter to The Telegram in October 2011, Richard Cashin, Ed Hearn and (now consumer advocate) Dennis Browne wrote: “Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro has informed governments for over 30 years that it was uneconomic to bring Muskrat Falls power to the island. Therefore, Muskrat Falls is an old concept which has proven time and again to be unsound financially. It is not new; it is not visionary. … The (Joint Review Panel) found that Nalcor had no known markets for Muskrat Falls power. The JRP found that the need to bring Muskrat Falls power to the island had not been established and that there are alternate and economically viable and socially responsible ways to meet electricity demands on the island.”
Ron Penney’s and David Vardy’s presentation to the PUB in February 2012 was similarly prescient. “If energy prices behave unpredictably and start to decline, then this hydroelectric megaproject might turn into an albatross,” they wrote.

Another presenter noted: “I feel that when a government initiates a project like Muskrat Falls, their allegiance to it becomes all encompassing. Their effort, time, job, and political party are on the line. … I feel that costs will get out of hand on this project and the province will have no choice but to keep borrowing to complete a development that is not needed at this time.”

So, here we are again, back in the Land of Boondoggle, where albatrosses cast shadows against the sky and white elephants and behemoths plod the earth. And no one should be surprised.

The sad fact is, once Danny Williams issued his decree on Nov. 18, 2010, telling reporters “This project is a go," all the critics in the world couldn’t have stopped it.

 

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

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