More eyes on Muskrat Falls

The Western Star - - LIFE - Pam Framp­ton Pam Framp­ton is a colum­nist whose work is pub­lished in The Western Star and The Tele­gram. Email pamela.framp­[email protected] thetele­ Twit­ter: pam_framp­ton

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.

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