De­mand an­swers

The Compass - - OPINION - — Orig­i­nally pub­lished in the Thurs­day, April 17 print edi­tion of The Tele­gram.

Some­times, no news isn’t good news. In fact, no news might well end up be­ing very bad news. On Tues­day, Nal­cor pres­i­dent and CEO Ed Martin met with the me­dia to re­lease a re­port on the Muskrat Falls project by the federal govern­ment’s in­de­pen­dent en­gi­neer. Much of the re­port was re­leased, but there are still ar­eas that the prov­ince’s ratepay­ers - the people who will ac­tu­ally pay for the dam project - aren’t be­ing al­lowed to see.

For ex­am­ple, in the cur­rent re­port, even the num­bers for the project’s ex­pected power out­put are blacked out for commercial con­fi­den­tial­ity rea­sons. That’s a head­scratcher, and it leads you in an un­set­tling di­rec­tion. Nal­cor has al­ways given the project’s power gen­er­a­tion num­bers be­fore - their ab­sence now sug­gests, first of all, that the pre­dic­tions have changed and, sec­ond, that the new num­bers aren’t as rosy as the orig­i­nal fig­ures.

Why? Well, per­haps be­cause Nal­cor and the provin­cial govern­ment have al­ways been in a rush to trum­pet any­thing that looks like it im­proves the project’s eco­nom­ics. How many times have we been told that a federal loan guar­an­tee “saves” ratepay­ers mil­lions of dol­lars? Heck, you could lose count of the num­ber of news con­fer­ences and speeches.

Mean­while, Nal­cor is grudg­ingly ad­mit­ting that costs are go­ing up and that the project may not be com­pleted on its cur­rent time­line. The in­de­pen­dent en­gi­neer echoed that po­si­tion, sug­gest­ing that Nal­cor should have had a higher con­tin­gency per­cent­age for costs and a “length­ened project sched­ule.”

No one’s will­ing to say what the in­creased cost is at this point. Once again, that’s ap­par­ently in­for­ma­tion that would put Nal­cor at a com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage as it tries to nail down the costs for big-dol­lar con­tracts — at least, that’s what we’re be­ing told.

Mean­while, our Nova Sco­tian coun­ter­parts aren’t con­cerned about the costs or the time­lines. They claim the Mar­itime Link will be done on time and within budget.

Nova Sco­tia En­ergy Min­is­ter Andrew Younger says Nova Sco­tians shouldn’t worry: if Muskrat Falls is late or more ex­pen­sive than planned, con­tacts signed with Nal­cor mean that New­found­land and Labrador’s en­ergy ware­house will ei­ther have to find elec­tric­ity to meet the terms of the ex­ist­ing con­tract, or pay cash to cover Nova Sco­tia’s costs. (Nova Sco­tian ratepay­ers also have the pro­tec­tion of a pub­lic util­i­ties board rid­ing herd over elec­tri­cal prices; here, the provin­cial govern­ment has es­sen­tially neutered our PUB, at least as far as Muskrat Falls is con­cerned.)

All of this is cast against the back­drop of a provin­cial govern­ment that is keen to re­cast it­self as be­ing even more open and ac­count­able.

The pieces that are miss­ing are, quite sim­ply, a lit­tle alarm­ing.

Only one thing is ab­so­lutely cer­tain: how­ever long it takes to fin­ish, and how­ever much it costs to build, elec­tric­ity ratepay­ers will pay for it. It would be nice to know what the bill might be.

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