Calling for a full public inquiry related to Muskrat Falls project
Why are the island’s ratepayers currently required to pay for the Muskrat Falls project? The federal loan guarantee of 2013 required the provincial government to reveal how the costs associated with the Muskrat Falls project would be paid. To fulfill this obligation, in November 2013 government passed an Order-in-Council which instructed the Public Utilities Board to extract the costs associated with the Muskrat Falls’ project from island interconnected consumers. Thereby, island ratepayers were used as pawns in the scheme to finance the project.
The problem arises today because the roughly 300,000 ratepayers on the island cannot afford to pay for the Muskrat Falls project. Muskrat Falls electricity is simply unaffordable. What can be done?
Firstly, refer the entire matter with general terms of reference to the Public Utilities Board to convene a special session. The two utilities, industrial customers, commercial customers, consumers, municipalities, and others with a vested interest, can work with economists, experts in rate design and others, to find the ways and means to ensure affordable electricity. These hearings would be public so that anyone who has something to offer can participate. A new performance rate-based system needs to be devised. The PUB may recommend that the majority of cost related to Muskrat Falls should be borne by taxpayers and that the Order-in-Council, as established by the government of the day, simply cannot work.
Secondly, long-term solutions need to be addressed. There is a way forward in working with the Province of Quebec in a true partnership as we are now within a timeframe when the 2041 Upper Churchill Contract will be subject to renewal. Such negotiations will take years. A best-efforts panel of knowledgeable citizens can be convened and given a mandate to meet with Hydro Quebec and to inform the government as to what is obtainable. We cannot rest on past political failures. We have to move forward.
Finally, there must be a public inquiry held under the provisions of the Public Inquiries Act and presided over by a commissioner who would be a senior justice of our Supreme Court. This is no time for half measures. A full public inquiry is needed, when all the evidence can be produced. The commissioner would have the authority under the Act to require witnesses to attend and give evidence, and require the production of documents and records, including those in electronic form. The commissioner would have the authority under the Inter-Provincial Subpoena Act to issue a subpoena to those outside the province, including SNCLavalin. It would be an open and transparent process where witnesses are subject to examination and cross-examination.
No other form of inquiry compares with what a public inquiry is empowered to do under the Act. No form of investigation into the Muskrat Falls project could equal the scope and integrity of a full public inquiry. Anything less than a full public inquiry would be a disservice to the people of the province.
Dennis Browne, Q.C. Consumer Advocate