Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Can the People Stand up to Mighty Muskrat?

Can the People Stand up to Mighty Muskrat?

By: Ryan Young

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett is telling the people of Newfoundland and Labrador that “everything is on the table,” but is that actually the case? Premier Ball has continued to reject the idea of public service layoffs, and most recently Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady clearly stated that the Muskrat Falls mega-project was most certainly “off the table.” This statement came on the heels of two former Liberal Premiers , Brian Tobin and Roger Grimes, advising Premier Ball to take a hard look at Muskrat Falls and possibly postponing it or scrapping the project altogether.

As Brad Cabana pointed out in his recent post; “The Muskrat Liberals,” the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador has been in favor of the project since the very beginning. It should come as no surprise then that they seem determined to hold on like the Captain going down with the Titanic. Speaking of going down with the ship, Danny Williams and Kathy Dunderdale were smart enough to jump off the boat just before the iceberg hit. They may be the ones that the public direct their ire towards right now, but it won’t be long before Dwight Ball and his Liberals will own what will probably go down as the biggest mistake in Newfoundland history. At least Joey got investors to pay for building the dam at Churchill Falls.

You can’t read a blog post or listen to an open-line show these days without hearing about the seemingly endless issues with the Muskrat Falls project. If Siobhan Coady is so sure that full steam ahead is the only course of action, then maybe she should explain to the people of the province how this project is still the best cost option. She should also be forthcoming with what the actual ramifications would be if the project were to be scrapped. It seems that nobody at Nalcor, the DNR, PUB or the media has access to that particular information.

There has been no shortage of analysis and fact checking by expert bloggers such as Uncle Gnarley and the Sir Robert Bond Papers. They have taken on the cause of real openness and transparency for the project from the very beginning. The case has been made many times that Nalcor has not been honest with the people and it continues even now as they are trying to justify a rate hike with the PUB in order to meet increased thermal generating needs.

Hearing former premier Tom Marshall stumbling his way through a CBC Crosstalk show this week, talking about the benefits of the profits from Muskrat Falls, was downright embarrassing. The fact that the former premier was still willing to talk publicly about profits is astounding. The best estimates of the amount of revenue we could earn by selling “spot power” on the open market is around $80 Million. When you compare that with the interest payments that could end up being in excess of $300 Million annually, it really makes one question the logic of the argument. Then there is, of course, the fact that any actual profit that the province makes from Muskrat Falls power will come through rate-hikes for the residents of Newfoundland and Labrador. The ten cents a kilowatt hour people are paying in Newfoundland now will double at the very least, but will most likely be in excess of thirty cents by the time all cost overruns, first power delays, and interest payments are factored in.

I won’t even delve into the issues of the North Spur or the Methyl Mercury concerns. Those issues are being written and talked about by people who have much more knowledge on those particular topics than I do. These issues are not going to go away though. Sooner or later someone is going to need to step up and address these legitimate concerns. In particular, an evacuation plan for downstream residents needs to become a priority for the current government. If the North Spur does fail, and no contingency plan is in place, the possible loss of life and property will become a noose around the neck of those in charge. It is very easy for people to talk about the benefits of the project when they don’t live in Mud Lake.

Just when you might be thinking, WOW, that is quite a bit to take in, we must also consider the implications of the court battle with Quebec  for water management rights of the Churchill River. If the courts rule in favor of Quebec, and they probably will, it is quite likely that we will have to compensate them for use of the water flowing through Muskrat Falls. It may also affect how much power is able to be generated at Muskrat if the current trend that is leaving our reservoirs at all-time low water levels (according to Nalcor) continues. This could result in the loss of any ability we might have had to turn a “profit” from the project, and most likely power rates will rise even more to pay the folks at Hydro-Quebec who will be laughing all the way to the bank, again.

So what can the rest of us do? How can we lowly citizens make a difference in the face of billions of dollars and thousands of bureaucrats? No amount of grassroots action will be able to stop the project now. That ship has long sailed. But maybe if the people start to speak up together we can at least get some honesty from the people in charge. Issues like Methyl Mercury and the North Spur need to be addressed.  The implications of us losing the water management rights case also needs to be addressed. And more importantly we need to examine the process by which the project was sanctioned in the first place. We might not have the power to stop the mighty muskrat from being built, but we do have the power to demand the hard truth of what this project is going to cost the people of this province for generations to come.

Many Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans that so willingly drank the Muskrat Kool-Aid are finally waking up to the reality of the magnitude and bad timing of this boondoggle.  It seems that we are finally seeing the writing that has been on the proverbial wall for a long, long time. If the calls to open-line shows are any indication of public opinion regarding the project, it is clear that people are beginning to take notice. If they are not paying attention now they certainly will be as soon as the first wave of power rate-hikes start making a noticeable difference in their household bottom line.  Can we harness this powerful public sentiment and force the governments to act on the issue? Maybe, but only if people are willing to take the power into their own hands and act collectively.

People are desperately looking for someone to take leadership on this issue. The Consumer Advocate and the PUB have repeatedly dropped the ball by failing to act in the best interest of the public and with Minister Coady’s recent statements, it is clear that the provincial government has decided to follow the path of their predecessors by keeping their heads buried firmly in the sand. At one point during the election campaign last fall, Dwight Ball said that he believed in the Muskrat Falls project, but that there needed to be changes in the management of the project. For those who noticed, it might have seemed a contradiction when the premier told the public that he had the utmost confidence in the management of Ed Martin, Gilbert Bennett, and the rest of the team of top decision makers at Nalcor. It makes you wonder who is really pulling the strings when a premier can have such a major change in opinion in just a few short weeks.

It has always been difficult to get people together in this province to take on the powers that be, but when needed the will of the people has been able to stop bad decisions in their tracks. Just look to Clyde Wells’ plan to privatize Hydro. If we fail to act now how many generations of our children will have to pay for this colossal mistake? We need to stand together to send a loud and clear message to the Premier that if he wants to have his job long enough to get comfortable, he is going to have to listen up and do better. He ran on “real change” and “a stronger tomorrow” and the people of this province will accept nothing less. If Dwight does not have the might then it is our duty to take back the power in the name of the people. We can do it. I’m ready. Who‘s with me?

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