Flunking the ‘smell test’
Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is a pattern. And for Nalcor, it’s looking like a clear pattern of being a law unto itself. At its birth, then-Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams and his government deliberately set the Crown corporation outside a number of the rules that usually regulate such companies. In order to compete with oil giants and other big hitters, Nalcor, the government of the day suggested, had to be nimble, quick, and able to be its own boss.
It looks less and less like that worked out very well. You need only look at three events in the last few weeks. First, an EY review of the Muskrat Falls pointed out that Nalcor’s own board of directors was making decisions on the project with information that was as much as two months old.
Next was Monday’s “smell test.” Over the weekend, The Telegram in St. John’s reported on how the corporation was using contractors to do 90 per cent of Muskrat Falls project management, and was refusing to release pay rates for those contractors using a “commercially sensitive information” clause in the Energy Corporation Act (just one clause that is part of the company’s special “nimble” structure).
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball, asked about the secrecy on pay rates, said the company’s decision to hide the information “didn’t pass the smell test.”
“Once we put money out there, taxpayers’ money, simply saying that it’s commercially sensitive doesn’t pass the smell test for me. I’ll be reaching out to the board of directors to get to the bottom of this,” Ball told reporters, apparently unaware himself about the size of the shadow workforce and its pay rates.
Then, there’s this, also from Monday, from a Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board decision on whether or not NSP Maritime Link (NSPML), an Emera company responsible for the undersea power cable between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, would be allowed to start billing customers for the cost of the link, even though Muskrat Falls is woefully behind schedule.
“The Board is concerned about the significant delays in construction of the Muskrat Falls Generating Station and NSPML’s apparent lack of insight on what is happening at Muskrat Falls. Essentially, NSPML appeared to learn about the two-year delay contemporaneous with it being announced publicly, yet at the same time its representatives sit on joint committees with representatives of Nalcor dealing with the project. This lack of insight is troubling to the Board.”
When even your partners don’t know the true state of their joint investment, something’s gone seriously wrong.
The message? While the intention of having an independent energy corporation might have been fine in theory, in practice, the Williams government may have created a monster. Full, unfettered oversight might have prevented the “energy warehouse” from creating the Muskrat Falls boondoggle and accompanying monster debt.
When you hand over all the keys, sometimes you get locked out of your own house.