Lower(ed) Churchill expectations

A Labradorian’s take on the Muskrat Falls debate

So just about everyone has had their say on the Lower Churchill/Grand River/Mista-Shipu subject, and I’m pretty sure many of you have decided one way or the other where you stand by now. This has been an election issue, at least in Labrador, since the mid 1990’s and it’s an (the) election issue, yet again. Acknowledging that this is not a new issue, I will still have (another) kick at the can, which might turn out to be a kick at the proverbial bucket instead for me in some of your eyes.

I say another kick at it because, in 2003, some of my Labrador compatriots and I were accused of being anti development, and particularly anti-lower Churchill simply because we were asking questions. I was given an opportunity to provide a brief retort on CBC’s “Here and Now©” to explain some of the concerns many Labradorians were expressing at the time.

Many people have their biases: some want industrial economic development and others want environmental protection and tourism. But what we all wanted was the discussion to happen. We wanted to know the plan, benefits, risks, what it meant for Labrador, Newfoundland, and what we could all expect to get from this mega-project. And mostly we wanted to be heard. We wanted our say.

And then we had it

Well, we all had our say through the Joint Review Panel Report and it turns out that those concerns were warranted. Yeah, lots of people have already drawn out points from this report but I’m more than surprised that the very first conclusion is on page 278 and states “the Project should likely not be permitted to proceed for purposes of meeting Island demand. This is critical for the Muskrat Falls facility, because meeting Island demand has been put forward as its main justification.”

We knew up here from the very beginning that going through Quebec was not the desired outcome for the government. That option would require this province to pay for, and maintain, the hydro lines going through Quebec. Anyone who thinks any other province is obliged, let alone friendly enough, to shell out billions for another province’s benefit is not connected with reality. Of course Quebec will let us build it through their province: that was never an issue. We just had to pay for it.

But our crafty leaders knew that, and spun it like Quebec was blocking the transmission line in order to garner $upport for a mainland-island link. It worked.

So the idea is to replace Holyrood. I get it. Holyrood is an ECOnomist’s nightmare. Lots of nasty carbon for a mere 500 MW of power – and the costs will only keep going up. So we have to replace it right? [PS Holyroodians, did you notice they’re planning to kill your jobs?]

But nobody said it HAS to be with the Lower Churchill.

Well, except Nalcor/Navigant.

A singular review

But they based their review on the long term economic viability of this project versus all the others they didn’t study. Hey, if you can force people to pay whatever you want for electricity all supply/demand models fall apart. Further, what corporation doesn’t want to grow, so this project is better because it’s bigger! That report also subjectively rules out other alternatives but gives very few reasons why. Check out the key findings starting on page 4, and scroll on down to number 18. “Natural gas is not currently available on the island.” (neither is Muskrat Falls, by the way)

However, natural gas IS available TO the island, about 300 km off St Johns in fact. And at least this guy who works at MUN – and has a degree in something or other – thinks otherwise.

Now, now, before you think little Brandon Pardy is going off on a hissy fit or something, I have to say I’m still not against this project (per se).

I’m not a naysayer, but I despise the Bush-esque “you’re either with us or against us”: that mentality is antidemocratic. Nor am I a yaysayer. I guess I’m a MAYsayer?

Now Labradorians are a generous sort of people, and we’re not opposed to sharing with our neighbours to the south. But sharing is the root word in that sentence. That means we need to see some benefits in proceeding with any project. The Innu are very well on their way to benefiting from this project, and rightly so.

Now Labradorians are a generous sort of people, and we’re not opposed to sharing with our neighbours to the south.

Oh, sure there will be jobs but will they be for Labradorians? We’ve learned our lesson from Voiseys Bay about promises to maximize the benefits, only to learn Labradorians did not get the best jobs despite being trained and ready to go.

What about the industrial benefits to Labrador? We’ve been given the government’s word that there will be power available, and that they will (eventually) look into small hydro and so forth for Labrador communities. But unless there’s a grid, or some semblance of a grid, how are we to attract any industry? The Nalcor/Navigant report explicitly states the Island needs to develop an interconnected grid.

But interconnecting’s not good for Labrador. Dunderdale recently said it costs too much: ~$400 million. For some reason, the cost of the subsea cable line to Soldier’s Pond is no more now ($2.1 billion) than the 1998 Tobin-Bouchard deal ($2.2 billion). I don’t understand why the subsea power line is inflation proof, or how the Red Bay to Cartwright one is so high. Obviously there can be no trust in the cost estimates.

This project, like most mega projects, is about nation building. This is an important concept. We probably don’t have to foot a $6.5 billion (probably more) bill – that’s $13,000 per person to just replace Holyrood. No, the idea is to have a guaranteed source of power and, more importantly, to link the island to market. But these can be achieved in other (cheaper) ways.

Lots of questions remain

So I guess I have two points. Firstly, this is a nation building project, as the federal loan guarantee would suggest it is. If so, lets take the opportunity to build it as such. These power lines are going right over the heads of Labradorians, so is it not fair to interconnect at least the south coast communities north of Red Bay? Run a line to the north coast communities? We know there are more mineral resources down north to be smelted one day!

My second point is that if this project is meant to replace Holyrood, or to ensure a long term island energy supply, there are many alternatives. Natural gas is one, small hydro, wind, and tidal are others available to the island. Further, the province could accept this deal and guess how much it would cost the tax payers? Zero. (well, I suppose you could still build a $2.2 billion hydro line to Newfoundland via the same route Muskrat Falls would go to suit the island’s needs.)

The wondrous thing about the wind park is that it gets to save the river. In fact, other jurisdictions are removing dams. When destroying any natural resource, one has to weigh the benefits very carefully. What are the costs to the environment (that we do have to pay for), what are the lost opportunities for tourism, other businesses, or what of the intrinsic value?

This is a nation-building project…let’s take the opportunity to build it as such.

I feel Newfoundlanders and, especially, Labradorians should demand a further review instead of issuing the (likely) next government a blank cheque. Because I don’t trust promises made during election time. Like the hand-delivered letter from 2003 premier hopeful Daniel Williams to the Labrador Metis (and myself at the same time) pledging to support their rights – then retracting it a la Tom Rideout.

Remember, Daniel W. left when he did for a reason. Daniel left because he’ll look like a champion if the project goes ahead, and if it fails he can blame it on the fact he’s not there and others bungled it. There are many factors that can take this project down (Feds, voters, Innu, Labrador Inuit-Metis, better alternatives, Nova Scotia) and he would have likely stayed on if it were so golden.

When election day comes, remember what you’re endorsing with your vote. Are you gung ho for the “Lower Churchill” or do you still have questions? Ask your candidate where they stand, and if it’s in line with their party. We’ve all sent great MHAs from our respective regions in this province but, sorry, once in office they’re going to toe the line. It’s a mighty big caucus, and there are many (bigger) interests out there.

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