Stan Mar­shall says Muskrat Falls was al­ways trou­ble

The Labradorian - - EDITORIAL - Pam Framp­ton

On May 6, 2011, For­tis pres­i­dent and CEO Stan Mar­shall was at an an­nual share­hold­ers meet­ing when he was asked what was then a 6.2-billion-dol­lar-ques­tion. Why wasn’t his in­ter­na­tional util­i­ties com­pany in­ter­ested in get­ting in on the province’s am­bi­tious plan to un­leash the hy­dro­elec­tric po­ten­tial of the Lower Churchill?

Mar­shall’s an­swer guarded.

“We will not get in­volved in mi­nor­ity sit­u­a­tions with gov­ern­ments. That is an ab­so­lute rule I have ob­served…” he said. “Sim­ply, when things go wrong we’d like to be able to rec­tify them. If you’re go­ing to go in with a part­ner you’ve got to know that part­ner very, very well; have a lot of com­mon­al­ity.

“Gov­ern­ments ... their agenda can be very, very dif­fer­ent than a pri­vate en­ter­prise.”

So imag­ine how bizarre it must have been for Mar­shall, five years later, to find his brief at­tempt at re­tire­ment thwarted as he ac­cepted Premier Dwight Ball’s re­quest (plea?) to be­come the new CEO of Nal­cor En­ergy and the per­son in charge of Muskrat Falls. It wasn’t a po­si­tion he’d ever wanted to find him­self in.

I re­minded Mar­shall of the an­swer he gave share­hold­ers when I spoke to him Aug. 16.

“You were be­ing diplo­matic,” I sug­gested.

“It was suf­fice was ex­pla­na­tion at the time,” he said with a wry smile.

I asked him if For­tis had also not been in­ter­ested be­cause he rec­og­nized from the start that Muskrat Falls wasn’t vi­able.

“I knew it would be trou­ble,” Mar­shall said. “It was never go­ing to come in on bud­get. … Tech­nol­ogy has im­proved a lot, but the fun­da­men­tals didn’t change over time. The cost of (power) gen­er­a­tion is fairly at­trac­tive, but you’ve got to spend the money get­ting it to New­found­land.”

When he’d first got­ten wind of Muskrat Falls, some­one asked him to ball­park the cost.

“$10 billion to $12 billion,” he said.

Now it’s his baili­wick — a boon­dog­gle by his own ad­mis­sion — with the cost pegged at $12.7 billion thus far.

It’s telling that Mar­shall could see it for what it was from the get-go even as the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment of the day and Nal­cor of­fi­cials were tout­ing the project’s grand vi­sion. Gov­ern­ments and pri­vate en­ter­prise, as Mar­shall ob­served, can have very dif­fer­ent agen­das.

In Au­gust 2011, just three months af­ter that For­tis share­hold­ers meet­ing, Nal­cor’s Muskrat Falls per­sua­sion tour was in full swing — no doubt as di­rected — with vis­its to lo­cal me­dia out­lets to ad­vance the ar­gu­ment that the project was the only al­ter­na­tive to meet the province’s en­ergy needs.

“We feel com­fort­able with the project and the busi­ness case,” Nal­cor cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager Dawn Dal­ley as­sured Telegram ed­i­tors and re­porters.

Nal­cor VP Gil­bert Ben­nett played the pock­et­book card: “I guess the most fun­da­men­tal ques­tion is, if we don’t want to build the project, then we want to pay more (for power),” he said, stress­ing the need to re­place the oil-guz­zling Holy­rood gen­er­at­ing plant.

The province needed an al­ter­nate en­ergy source, no ques­tion. But the over­sized scope of Muskrat Falls com­pared to the province’s re­quire­ments, the risk taken on en­ergy prices and de­mand, the con­cerns about cost over­runs — th­ese were ques­tion­able, but al­ter­na­tive ideas and crit­ics were sum­mar­ily dis­missed.

Mar­shall knows many peo­ple want the project halted.

“There’s a lot of mis­trust and we’re try­ing very hard to dis­si­pate that,” he said, but added it would be fool­hardy to stop now, given how much of the project is com­plete and the amount of money spent and com­mit­ted.

He doesn’t have much time for pol­i­tics or look­ing back, but in a speech to en­gi­neers last fall, Mar­shall said of the province’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to push ahead with Muskrat Falls: “We spec­u­lated and lost. Rather than be­ing an an­swer to the prob­lem, Muskrat Falls be­came the prob­lem.”

I find it ap­palling that the peo­ple we en­trusted with our fu­ture were will­ing to spec­u­late, and heeded no warn­ings, no mat­ter how sound.

In­stead, they tried to brain­wash the pub­lic via Kathy Dun­derdale’s in­ces­sant mes­sag­ing: “It has been demon­strated time and time again that the Muskrat Falls project is the low­est-cost op­tion to meet the long-term en­ergy needs of the province.”

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