Ambivalence and Muskrat Falls

Guest columnist Jonathan Parsons is still waiting to be convinced…
ambivalence: simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action

You know the feeling. You want to buy the hotdog from the vendor on George Street, but you know you’ll pay dearly for it later. You want to put that new flat screen on your credit card, but you’re not sure how to ever pay it off. It’s that feeling of ambivalence. It’s how I feel about Muskrat Falls.

The wonderful world of environmentalism…

No question, hydro-electric is one of the best sources of energy you can get. None of the cataclysmic side-effects of nuclear reactors, none of the CO2 emissions from burning coal or gas, no worries about disrupting the migratory patterns of geese like a landscape full of those immense wind farms. An abundant supply of environmentally sound, water-powered energy has got to be the way to go, right?

…it’s not necessarily as environmentally sound as you might think.

Well, it’s not necessarily as environmentally sound as you might think. The creation of the original Churchill Falls hydro-electric dam involved flooding roughly 6,500 km2 of land, what we now know as the Smallwood Reservoir. Innu elders have suggested that the flooding resulted in the drowning of 10,000 caribou. Studies by Department of Fisheries and Oceans have shown mercury levels in fish in the reservoir (and also downstream) were significantly elevated after construction of the dam. And although a hydro plant does not produce any significant amount of greenhouse gas, scientists suggest the reservoirs themselves produce a large quantity of methane – a greenhouse gas.

Muskrat land grab…

But let’s forget about the environment for now. After all, less than 10 per cent of the province’s population lives in Labrador and maybe you never wanted to go hunting or fishing there. What’s more, the people that live in the area and call it home – the Innu Nation – voted overwhelmingly in favour (over 80 per cent) of a deal that allows the project to go ahead. If they’re OK with developing Muskrat Falls, why shouldn’t everybody else be?

The deal the Innu Nation ratified, Tsash Petapen Agreement (New Dawn Agreement), bundled together questions of Innu land claims with the question of developing Muskrat Falls. One might say the Innu were expected to decide on two separate issues as if they were one thing. Some members of the Innu Nation, like Elizabeth Penashue (Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs Peter Penashue’s mother), expressed concerns over the way the agreement unnaturally packaged land claims alongside the issue of Muskrat Falls. Others, like former Innu Nation president Katie Riche, expressed concerns that the $100 million to be paid out to the Innu over the next 30 years will be improperly managed and will not benefit the majority of people. Recent protests against the business practices of the Innu Development Limited Partnership (IDLP) shows that little has been done to placate these concerns.

Economics and what’s not learned from history repeats…

But let us forget, for the moment, about the potential political fallout of the Innu Nation giving a second thought to the New Dawn Agreement. Let us imagine that future generations of Innu won’t think of Muskrat Falls the same way previous generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians think about that other Churchill River hydro-electric project – the one that sees Quebec sponging an unmentionable amount of money out of our province every year. Let’s just forget about that and other foibles we’ve endured at the hands of our elected officials (Sprung Greenhouse comes to mind) so we can focus on the economics.

Any discussion of “costs” or “revenues” implies sarcastic quotation marks. The measure of this is evident in how few of us will be shocked to hear, at some point, the cost of Muskrat Falls has doubled.

Ed Martin, President and CEO of Nalcor Energy; the Honourable Jerome Kennedy, Minister of Natural Resources; the Honourable Charlie Parker, Nova Scotia Minister of Energy; and Chris Huskilson, President and CEO, Emera Inc. at the July 31, 2012 signing of formal agreements between Nalcor Energy and Emera Inc. for the development and transmission of hydroelectric power from Muskrat Falls. – photo courtesy the Department of Natural Resources, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

Recent figures have the cost of the Muskrat Falls development at somewhere in the vicinity of $6.2 Billion. Some economists (Wade Locke, for one) as well as outside reviewers (Manitoba Hydro International) have stated that Muskrat Falls is the best option for Newfoundland and Labrador’s future energy needs. If everything goes as planned we stand to make off like bandits in the long term, selling our excess energy to expanding markets on the east coast of the United States, or something to that effect.

Other economists (James Feehan, for one) have questioned the necessity, haste, and economic viability of the project. Pragmatic observers have further noted that fluctuations in the price of oil could quickly change our fortunes. From what I can tell (and I am no economist), we are experiencing a fairly serious period of instability in the global economy. Since the 2008 financial crisis, over $100 Billion of tax payer money has been allocated to shoring up Canadian banks. European nations are being brought to their knees because of the relative degree of confidence amongst traders. Markets fluctuate, expand, and contract in unpredictable ways. Any discussion of “costs” or “revenues” implies sarcastic quotation marks. The measure of this is evident in how few of us will be shocked to hear, at some point, the cost of Muskrat Falls has doubled.

No one else to blame…

When the House of Assembly opens for fall session, Muskrat Falls will be front and center in the political debate. Our government has a strong majority, and ultimately whatever they decide will be so. It could well seem a foregone conclusion in their minds. But in the end it is us, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, who must shoulder responsibility. If it turns out this was another huge mistake, we will all be complicit and so we will all pay.

To say it plain: I am not against Muskrat Falls, but I am not for it. I am waiting to be convinced. I am ambivalent. In what little time is left, let us consider very carefully the environmental, social, and economic ramifications of this project, not just for today but for fifty years, a hundred years in the future. Certainly there is risk – and where there is risk is opportunity. But if there is doubt where there is no room for doubt, it is good reason for hesitancy.

Jon Parsons is a PhD student at Memorial University interested in Newfoundland and Labrador culture, society, and politics. Catch up with him on twitter @jwpnfld

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