Blacked out pages of engineer’s report cause concern in House
On Tuesday morning, Nalcor provided 209 pages of Muskrat Falls information in the form of an independent engineer’s report, but just hours later the Liberals were in the House of Assembly demanding more information.
© — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Nalcor Energy CEO and president Ed Martin (left) and vice-president Gilbert Bennett speak to media Tuesday about the independent engineer’s report regarding the hydroelectric project.
The independent engineer’s assessment is a broad and mostly positive study done as part of the federal loan guarantee agreement, but Nalcor has meticulously blacked out sections of the report that might hint at cost overruns or delays, and that’s exactly what Liberal Leader Dwight Ball wanted to know about.
“The CEO of Nalcor admitted today that the cost of Muskrat Falls is under pressure and that it will go up due to labour and material costs,” Ball said, in his first question in the House. “I ask the premier: have you had any discussions with Nalcor about these increasing costs?”
Premier Tom Marshall said he’s had conversations with Nalcor officials about project expenses, but he doesn’t have an updated figure on how much the whole thing would cost.
Marshall was also on the defensive over the pages of blacked-out information in the independent engineer’s report.
When the report was released Tuesday morning, the media was not provided with a copy of it until after Nalcor CEO Ed Martin finished speaking, so reporters were unable to ask questions about specific parts of the report which were hidden behind black ink.
Ball wanted to know why censors had blocked information about how much electricity the dam will produce.
“Some things around a project the size of this is justified as being commercially sensitive. Blacking out how much power Muskrat Falls will produce just does not make any sense,” he said. “I ask the premier: you stated many times in this House that Muskrat Falls will produce 824 megawatts of power, so why is this information blacked out in the engineer’s report?”
Later in the afternoon, a spokeswoman for Nalcor said the average output of the dam — 824 megawatts — is public information, but when it comes to a detailed breakdown of how much electricity is generated under “various scenarios,” it becomes secret.
The issue, it seems, is that if Nalcor is selling power into the North American market, and competitors know how much electricity the dam can generate under a variety of circumstances, that could potentially prevent the company from getting the highest possible price.
Ball told reporters he doesn’t think what Nalcor is holding back should be kept secret.
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“This is not commercially sensitive information. We have a right to know,” he said.
The bigger issue, though, was the total cost to build Muskrat Falls and the associated transmission lines.
Martin doggedly refused to say how much it’s going to cost, and he said he won’t provide any sort of update until all the major contracts have been awarded.
He did, however, hint that some aspects of construction cost are coming in higher than originally estimated, and the project might not be finished in 2017 as planned.
Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley said that makes perfect sense, and if they can space out the work evenly so it’s not as expensive to build the dam, Nalcor will go that route.
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael also tried to get more details about cost overruns out of the government Tuesday, without much luck.
She said it’s no surprise that some of the project costs are coming in higher than originally forecast. She pointed out that she’s been asking about this for months.
“I was mocked by the premier of the day and the minister, and what we have now is a validation of the questions I asked in December and the concerns I raised,” Michael said. “We have no idea how much over they are, and it’s going to continue to be like this. I have absolutely no doubt.”
In Nova Scotia, Energy Minister Andrew Younger said news of the possible delay completing construction of Muskrat Falls would have “zero impact” in his province in terms of cost or delivery of power.
Younger said that’s because under the project agreement, a delay requires Nalcor to deliver its promised allotment of energy by some other means or reimburse Nova Scotia Power for the cost.
He said the cost overruns relate to the dam project and have nothing to do with the construction of the subsea cables between Newfoundland and Cape Breton.
“The Maritime Link remains within the budget approved by the (Nova Scotia Utility and Review) Board and it remains on schedule,” said Younger.
With a file from The Canadian Press