More eyes on Muskrat Falls
The open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week, written by more than 200 Canadian and international academics asking him to mothball Muskrat Falls, won’t get the massive hydroelectric project shut down, of course.
To stop Muskrat now would be to default on contracts and render billions of dollars of infrastructure unusable. So, the scholars’ mission might have the best of intentions, but it’s pretty much mission impossible.
Their letter expresses “deep concern” about the $12.7-billion project and its potential environmental risks, the huge financial burden it places on an overburdened province and the fact it runs counter to Canada’s commitment to Indigenous peoples’ rights to “free, prior and informed consent” regarding massive developments in their backyards.
Dr. James Deutsch of the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine calls the project “a crime against Indigenous peoples.”
It feels like a crime against all of us.
There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter about who knew what when, and whether we were all just too apathetic and willing to accept what we were spoon-fed about the project.
But when you look back at The Telegram’s news coverage of Muskrat Falls, a lot of questions were being asked. Nalcor officials were touting the Crown corporation’s openness and transparency, but on occasion it simply refused to divulge exactly how much the project would cost.
In April 2014, a report on Muskrat Falls was released by the independent engineer directed to assess it as part of the loan guarantee arrangement with the federal government. The Telegram reported that “Nalcor has meticulously blacked out sections of the report that might hint at cost overruns or delays…”
The report was distributed to journalists at a news conference only after then Nalcor CEO Ed Martin had finished his remarks and gone, so no one got to ask him about the redactions.
At the time, Lorraine Michael was leader of the NDP and said she had been trying to find out about cost overruns for months, to no avail.
“I was mocked by the premier of the day and the minister, and what we have now is a validation of the questions I asked in December and the concerns I raised,” Michael said. “We have no idea how much over they are, and it’s going to continue to be like this. I have absolutely no doubt.”
She was right.
By 2015, Ed Martin was still insisting Nalcor was being completely transparent.
“I mean, the bottom line is that we have come out publicly with all the information we have — Nalcor has — in a transparent fashion, as soon as it’s reasonably available. We have a track record of doing that. We’re always out there. We’re always available to the press.”
By then, the cost had gone from $6.2 billion to $6.99 billion to $7.65 billion to $9.05 billion. Martin was adamant that the province needed the power, and that Muskrat Falls was the leastcost option.
Now the cost is $12.7 billion and it’s still unfinished.
As recently as last fall, Nalcor was refusing to divulge how much it was paying embedded contractors, citing commercial sensitivity. It wouldn’t even say which companies those contractors were working for.
So no, Nalcor wasn’t always transparent.
It’s too bad it will take a public inquiry to ferret out the truth about Muskrat Falls, including how it went so spectacularly over-budget, and why it was grounded on flawed assumptions about the price of oil and the demand for electricity — assumptions that turned out to be as unreliable as some critics warn the North Spur could be.
The academics’ open letter has signatures from across Canada, from the U.K., Chile and the U.S., but glaringly only one from Memorial University (associate professor Nicole Power). Perhaps the rest have given up and the few MUN profs who were willing to speak up are too hoarse from shouting.
The letter won’t achieve its goals, but it might draw national and even international focus on Muskrat Falls — a manifestation of the high-risk gamble some politicians were willing to take with taxpayers’ money.