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PAM FRAMPTON: Muskrat Falls Inquiry — arrogance takes the stand

Former Nalcor Energy president and CEO Ed Martin at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry on Thursday.
Former Nalcor Energy president and CEO Ed Martin at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry on Thursday. — Telegram file photo

“Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.” — Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), Yiddish author and playwright

Newfoundland and Labrador did the right thing in going ahead with the Muskrat Falls project.

The cost overruns are unfortunate. But the project will reap us tens of billions of dollars over the next 50 years.

The future is bright. We’re well-positioned.

It’s better to buy than to rent.

These statements are all jim-dandy if you’re well off and you don’t lie awake at night wondering how you’re going to pay your heat bill at this most wonderful time of the year, let alone once we start using Muskrat Falls power.

They are also all points made by former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin on the stand at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry this week, in a display of brash arrogance that rivals anything I’ve seen in nearly three decades of journalism.

The amount of money budgeted for strategic risk when the project was expected to cost $6.2-billion was zilch — a project that has so far cost $12.7 billion.

Why? Because the Nalcor project team couldn’t foresee how much risk might actually wind up costing, but the province had agreed to cover whatever it was, so what odds.

“Speculating on unknowns is really just something I didn’t find of value,” Martin said, cool as you please.

But Commissoner Richard LeBlanc was not cool, at least not on Wednesday.

The normally unflappable LeBlanc, the very measure of calm and reason, was visibly and verbally riled by Martin’s combative demeanour, as time and again Martin refused to answer questions or else answered them snidely, cutting off lawyers as they spoke.

Another $200 or $400 a month tacked onto your heat bill won’t mean much if you’re pulling down $200 an hour, but there are scores of people for whom that constitutes real hardship.

Martin may have mouthed platitudes about ratepayers being the most important people in this whole megaproject equation, but his lack of understanding about ordinary people’s financial limitations was squarely on display.

An email from 2011 had Martin dismissing criticism of Muskrat Falls — including the notion that electricity bills could double — as so much “unsubstantiated
bulls--t” flying around.

Well, it’s much easier to dismiss financial worries as bullshit if you happen not to have any.

Another $200 or $400 a month tacked onto your heat bill won’t mean much if you’re pulling down $200 an hour, but there are scores of people for whom that constitutes real hardship.

Many journalists in this province have talked to people who worry they will have to give up their homes, that their finances won’t be able to take the strain, or that they will end up going without some other basic necessity in order to stay warm.

And that’s no unsubstantiated bullshit.

I fully expected Martin to defend his actions and decisions, his leadership of Nalcor and Muskrat Falls itself. He vested a lot of time and energy in it.

But to suggest we should all feel buoyant about a project that has roughly doubled in cost and dragged on years after it was supposed to be completed is a bit rich.

Yes, it’s better to own a house than to rent if you can swing it. But it’s better to rent than to bring about your own financial ruin by buying a house that’s beyond your grasp.

The cost overruns on Muskrat Falls have been “substantial,” as even Martin has deigned to acknowledge. But to say they’re “unfortunate” does nothing to acknowledge the fact that they could have been avoided altogether.

Yes, in 30 to 50 years, Muskrat Falls will be paid off and may pay dividends — if demand hasn’t dropped further or if the dam hasn’t been overtaken by cheaper, better means of power production.

And, in 30 to 50 years, thousands of us will be dead and gone, having been financially bled dry — many during their so-called golden years — for a project this province could never afford.

Forgive me if I fail to see the bright future in that.

A little humanity, a little empathy, would’ve gone a long way.

Recent columns by this author

PAM FRAMPTON: What price liberty? Andrew Abbass sues for damages

PAM FRAMPTON: Muskrat Falls — before the boondoggle

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

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