Proposed Muskrat Falls project renews much-needed energy debate

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The proposed $6-billion-plus Muskrat Falls project in Labrador, so casually assumed to be the cornerstone of our electricity solution by the governments of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, is raising tons of skepticism in both places, and rightly so.

My guess is that it won't go ahead -- at least not now -- mainly for Newfoundland reasons, as more and more people are gagging at the big numbers and shaky logic. Hopefully, however, the debate over it will force us to face the realities of our energy situation and to move ahead on another path.

With our histories of big deals gone bad in both Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the project instinctively raises red flags even before any real calculations are made. Given the great distances -- 1,200 kilometres to Nova Scotia and over 2,000 to final markets in the U.S., and crossing two stretches of ocean -- this project is on the outer margins of feasibility. The main concern is cost over-runs, raising the question: Can this thing go ahead without the taxpayer being massively liable?

Public utilities boards in both provinces will be examining the economics, comparing it with other options, although the economics of these other options will also be speculative and limited. In Newfoundland, the sore point has to do with Churchill Falls, upriver from the proposed project. In 2041, the infamous giveaway contract with Hydro-Quebec comes to an end, at which time Newfoundland will be flush with virtually free electricity. Yet in its plans, Nalcor, the Newfoundland electricity company, projects utilizing Churchill Falls power only by 2067, when Muskrat Fall is paid off. Why this peculiar lapse? Is there an agenda other than mere electricity here? Secret deals with mining companies is one suspect.

The point, the critics are saying, is that Newfoundland can make do with conservation and gas-fired power until that time.

And indeed, there is another agenda. Whenever Premier Darrell Dexter speaks of the "Maritime Link," as the undersea jag to Cape Breton is known, "jobs" seem to be top of mind, even before electricity. In Newfoundland, the official story glows with the promise of over 5,000 person-years of work, and nearly 20,000 indirect jobs. In short, it's about jobs first. Which, as East Coast history has amply demonstrated, warps energy planning.

In other words, we're still not over the peculiar habit of going after grandiose projects because of their short-term flash, while ignoring the fundamentals. The granddaddy of the big flash is indeed Churchill Falls -- where Joey Smallwood, fancying himself a visionary, staged the biggest giveaway in Canadian history in exchange for a short burst of jobs.

In Nova Scotia, we had the disastrous "coal policy" of the Buchanan years, meant to create jobs in the coal mines. But Cape Breton coal was the wrong kind and too expensive, and coal had to be bought offshore. The desperation led to the Westray mine and its famous disaster. Along with this, we've nursed the peculiar illusion that, energy poor though we are in Nova Scotia, we can strut our stuff by exporting energy. This instinct is still alive. God forbid we should have swallowed our pride and bought more from Quebec or New Brunswick while we worked out a rational long-term plan.

The result has been that we ignore what we've really got. On Sept. 4, I had a column picking up on Dal professors Michael Poulton and Peter Allen, outlining our failure to capitalize on natural gas for domestic use, and the huge potential we're missing for displacing both electricity and oil. This provoked a debate, and the best excuse the powers-that-be could come up with for our non-use of the resource is that people in Halifax Regional Municipality are choosing to not link up even if the gas line goes by their door.

But why are they not linking up, whereas in other places they are? Are Nova Scotians merely obtuse? Or is it that government (including HRM) is ignoring it completely, without any plan or program or sense of public promotion, as they have elsewhere?

Here's another example. Ten years ago, I moved from the Dartmouth area to Yarmouth County, thinking the oncoming technologies of solar and geothermal -- heat pumps -- would be right behind me. Now I'm appalled that around me, people are still building houses on the assumption that their only options are oil and electricity.

Not that there aren't rebates, programs, Efficiency Nova Scotia and whatnot. It's that government, yoked to the economics of our private power utility, gives the impression that this is all marginal stuff it has coughed up to shut up a bunch of loud environmentalists. Don't sweat the small stuff is the message; here in Nova Scotia, we're going for the big deal at thousands of jobs a pop. It hasn't worked yet. Quite the contrary. But if the argument over Muskrat Falls shakes out this debate properly, it might do us a bigger favour than if it actually goes ahead.

Photo: innovationtrail/Flickr

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

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