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Questions probe government’s tracking of regulator’s review of project
Working as counsel for the Public Utilities Board (PUB) during the “least-cost option” review for meeting provincial power needs, Maureen Greene says she spoke on occasion with associate deputy minister of Natural Resources Charles Bown.
It was insight into how the government was following the review process at the time.
Greene was clear in her testimony Wednesday at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry that Bown gathered information and reported back to the government, mainly on the progress.
He was the designated contact for the board as well, as per then-Natural Resources minister Shawn Skinner’s reference of the Muskrat Falls-related question to the PUB on June 13, 2011.
Greene said, on one occasion, on Oct. 31 of that year, Bown did pose questions on information requests being issued to Nalcor Energy. The requests for information and delays were raised by the board in written communications, feeding new reports on tensions developing between the board and Nalcor.
Greene and Bown spoke about why specific information requests were being made and whether or not certain requests could be considered outside the terms of reference, as established by the government.
“At one point, Mr. Bown did contact me about the difficulty the board was experiencing in obtaining information from Nalcor, and some of the letters that had been written to Nalcor prior to this meeting in October, to say that he was surprised that I had not contacted him before sending the letters to Nalcor,” she testified.
“At that time … my response was: I would never have thought of calling you in advance. This is a board process. If we have difficulty with receiving information from Nalcor, the board and Nalcor will work that out.”
Greene said she then offered to issue Bown “blind copies” or “heads up” when further letters were being issued relating to the review schedule and process.
But Bown’s activity was all reported as information gathering.
On cross-examination, lawyer Andrew Fitzgerald, representing Bown, asked Greene if there was an attempt at interference in the PUB process by the government, or if she took the meeting with Bown in October as an attempt at interference.
“No, absolutely not,” she replied.
Greene was a lawyer working for the board. She said she had advised the board commissioners not to directly communicate with the government on the substance of the review.
The PUB was given a special reference to answer the “least-cost option” question. As The Telegram reported at the time, delays in the filing of information by Nalcor Energy led the PUB to request extensions from the government for filing its final report. One extension was granted and another was not.
The final report was filed March 30, 2012.
The PUB ultimately could not say whether or not the Muskrat Falls hydro project was a cheaper option for meeting provincial power demands versus the “isolated option” in the time allowed, with the information in hand. It was a contentious finding, drawing criticism from as high up as the sitting premier.
On cross-examination, Peter Ralph, representing the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, asked Greene why the board did not exercise its full powers during the review and start forcing information to be filed.
Greene explained there were “practical considerations,” that Nalcor Energy — versus the regulated Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro — fell outside of the jurisdiction of the board, the route of subpoenas would cover existing documents, but information was also coming in spurts.
Nalcor Energy lawyer Dan Simmons asked about the process for the PUB reference on Muskrat Falls, versus the more regular capital budget reviews and utility rate applications (for changes in power rates). Greene acknowledged that utilities in those cases would have sense of the reviews coming and would be able to prepare. The PUB was told the special reference was coming in May 2011.
More witnesses related to the PUB and the Muskrat Falls review are scheduled. They include Fred Martin, an engineer and consultant during the time of the Muskrat Falls review, PUB chair Darlene Whalen (a board member during the Muskrat Falls review) and former chair Andy Wells (leading the board at the time of the review).
Greene’s testimony was not the first reference to Bown, who is scheduled to appear as a witness Dec. 3-5, with the schedule subject to change.