Toronto Star

‘Are we absolutely sure this is the right number?’

In an excerpt from his new memoir, Dalton McGuinty revisits the early days of controvers­y over relocation of two gas plants


In his autobiogra­phy, Dalton McGuinty:

Making a Difference, the former premier writes of the lessons he learned from 23 years in Ontario politics, including a decade as premier.

In this chapter, he revisits the debate surroundin­g his government’s decision to relocate two gas power plants in Oakville and Mississaug­a in the months leading up to the 2011 provincial election. In 2004, inspired in part by my naive desire to give greater control of the energy file to experts, we created the Ontario Power Authority, an arm’s-length agency to decide when and where power was needed and to contract with the private sector to provide it. In 2009 the OPA made the decision to locate a gas plant in Oakville, beside the Ford auto assembly plant there. As a government, we stayed out of the decision; the matter did not come to cabinet for approval.

The Oakville gas plant escaped my attention until my government began to get some serious blowback from the local Liberal MPP (Kevin Flynn), the mayor of Oakville (Rob Burton), a citizens group, and local health officials, who argued the Oakville airshed was already overtaxed by industrial emissions.

The opposition parties jumped on the issue as a chance to embarrass the government. Both the Conservati­ves and the New Democrats called for outright cancellati­on of the plant. It became obvious that we had to rethink the OPA’s decision.

I met with Flynn a couple of times on this issue. I also met with the mayor. The most compelling argument Flynn made to me was that, under our own newly created rules for locating wind turbines, we would not be allowed to place a single wind turbine on the Oakville site. Indeed, our new Ontario law, one of the toughest in the world, prohibited the location of a wind turbine within 550 metres of a home. And yet what had been decided for Oakville was to locate a new gas plant — at 900 megawatts, it would be one of the biggest in North America — 400 metres from the nearest home, 320 metres from the nearest school, and 65 metres from the closest offices. Talk about getting it wrong!

I felt terrible about what we were about to foist onto the people of Oakville. Yes, the OPA made the decision, but the buck stopped with me. After some hard reflection on my part, I decided there was no way we could let this plant proceed. So, in 2010, one year before the next election, I decided to relocate the plant. The opposition parties did not complain. They saw my decision as a win for them and as a capitulati­on by me — a “flipflop.” I didn’t care what they called it. What mattered to me was that I had made the correct call. Moving the plant was the right thing to do.

Where I came up short at the time was in not immediatel­y demanding to know with some precision what the costs of relocation would be. By failing then to pressure the Ministry of Energy and OPA for these numbers and failing to understand early on just how limited our capacity was to project these costs, this later led to my government coming under intense pressure to release “the number.” What unfolded was the embarrassi­ng spectacle of us releasing a succession of different numbers, starting at $40 million and culminatin­g with the auditor’s projection of a cost that could be as high as $650 million spread out over twenty years.

The Opposition predictabl­y accused us of hiding the real numbers. That served their purposes, but it did not serve the truth. The truth is that neither my office nor, as it turned out, the Ministry of Energy, had the capacity to determine the complicate­d projected costs of relocating the plant to a new site, and transmitti­ng the electricit­y to where we needed it. We relied on the OPA for the cost projection­s, and, to our chagrin, the experts there kept changing them, always doing so upward. I felt for Premier (Kathleen) Wynne when she later expressed frustratio­n after receiving four different numbers from the OPA for the Oakville plant costs. In my case, before doing a me- dia scrum where I was to confirm the relocation costs to be $40 million, I cross-examined my staff to make sure we had it right. “Are we absolutely sure this is the right number? I don’t want to go back out there tomorrow or next week with a different number!” I was assured the number the experts had given us was rock solid. It wasn’t, and we looked stupid for months as a result.

This was bad enough, but it wasn’t the only gas plant my government took steps (rightly, in my opinion) to relocate. A year after we had made the decision to relocate the Oakville gas plant, we also started to take some heat for the proposed Mississaug­a gas plant in the months leading up to the 2011 election. Community opposition grew slowly, but then it boiled over just before the campaign. Indeed, in a local informatio­n session hosted by the plant’s privatesec­tor proponent a few weeks before the campaign, the discussion grew so heated the police had to be called in and the meeting shut down.

As I was to learn, seven years earlier — in 2004 — the Ministry of Energy (this was before the OPA was fully up and running) had decided we needed agas plant in the Mississaug­a area. In 2005 the city granted approval for a plant to be located on the site in question. About a year later, Mayor Hazel McCallion and her council changed their minds about it, and, for the next few years, the matter was caught up in legal wrangling. The project appeared to energy officials to have finally died on the vine because the builder could not secure the necessary project financing. But then, a few months before the 2011 election, events changed and it became clear the plant was going ahead.

The community reacted strongly in opposition. This was when the matter came to my attention. Mayor McCallion came to see me and, in her own inimitable way, made a no-nonsense argument, concluding, “Mr. Premier, I’m telling you your energy experts have got this one wrong and you are going to have to fix it.”

If there were savvier politician­s in Ontario than Hazel McCallion, I never met them. I should have listened sooner to the advice and urgings of Her Worship.

(I must admit I later enjoyed the tongue lashing she gave Opposition committee members when she appeared before the gas plant committee: “I don’t know why you are wasting a lot of time . . . The people of Mississaug­a are fed up of hearing all this controvers­y at Queen’s Park over something they wanted cancelled. The government agreed to cancel it and you folks are making a big fuss about it. C’mon. Let’s get on with the business of the province, folks.”)

Besides criticism from the opposition parties, government caucus members representi­ng ridings in Mississaug­a and neighbouri­ng Etobicoke, such as Charles Sousa, Bob Delaney, Donna Cansfield, and Laurel Broten, expressed their opposition to the project. As I began to wrestle in earnest with the issue, I found it hard to distinguis­h this gas plant from the Oakville gas plant. In Mississaug­a, the gas plant was again to be built on a site where not one wind turbine could have been lawfully located. The new plant was to be built in a residentia­l community adjacent to two condominiu­m towers, a hospital, and backing onto a conservati­on area.

A few weeks before the election, I hinted at the decision I would make to relocate the plant. When a reporter asked me what I intended to do about the brewing controvers­y, I said, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.” The whole matter didn’t sit right with me. My gut was telling me this plant was to be located in the wrong place and, like before, I was going to have to make things right for the community.

 ??  ?? Former premier Dalton McGuinty
Former premier Dalton McGuinty
 ?? TARA WALTON/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO ?? Dalton McGuinty and his wife, Terri, at a Liberal rally in July 2011, months before the provincial election.
TARA WALTON/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO Dalton McGuinty and his wife, Terri, at a Liberal rally in July 2011, months before the provincial election.
 ??  ?? Excerpted from Dalton McGuinty: Making a Difference, published by Dundurn Press. Copyright © 2015, Dalton McGuinty. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Dalton McGuinty: Making a Difference, published by Dundurn Press. Copyright © 2015, Dalton McGuinty. All rights reserved.

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