31 August 2010

Bury my lede at Muskrat Falls

The Proponent [NALCOR Energy] has failed to justify the Project in energy and economic terms and has not provided an assessment of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction in possible export markets as required in the detailed criteria provided in the EIS Guidelines.

You can find that statement as an attachment to a letter, dated January 26, 2010,  from the joint review panel appointed to conduct the environmental review of the Lower Churchill project.

The attachment lists, in painful detail, the areas of the NALCOR submissions to date that come up so short that the panel could not commence full public hearings.

But just look at those words:  “failed to justify”. They tell you, in the clearest way possible, why the Lower Churchill project is on hold. That’s something premier Danny Williams didn’t admit, incidentally until May 2010, but it is true.

NACLOR failed to justify the project on energy or economic grounds.

And those deficiencies are the reason the provincial cabinet is not even close to giving the thumbs up to start construction.

Forget the Premier’s claims about Hydro-Quebec. They are simply a diversion, a smokescreen. They are, as noted here many times, a complete nonsense given all that is in the public domain and the Premier’s own comments in April 2009.

As a result of that letter from the joint review panel, NALCOR spent another eight months pulling together more information in an effort to meet the review panel requirements.  NALCOR submitted the information to the joint review panel on August 9 and the panel began distributing the information to interested parties for comment on August 12.

Interestingly, that’s the same day Premier Danny Williams held a surprise news conference to accuse the Government of Quebec of interfering in a funding request to Ottawa for a project that, as the public subsequently learned doesn’t actually exist. As it turns out, a power line between Nova Scotia and the island of Newfoundland is merely a hypothetical project that depends on construction of the Lower Churchill. Still, the local media dutifully reported his claims without question and the story went national just like a spark touched to dry embers in the hot, dry woods of a central Canadian summer.

Sheer bunk though, all the same.

You’ll also find that quote from the environmental panel in a Telegram news story, dated Saturday August 21*, under the headline “Nalcor weighs risk and reward”. The article starts out with this line:

The province’s energy corporation has laid out a possible development scenario for the Lower Churchill.

That isn’t news, by the way, even though the most important idea is supposed to go right at the start of a news story.  The development scenario and the rest of the stuff at the front and in the middle of the article is exactly the same stuff that’s been talked about by NALCOR and its predecessor dating back to the 1990s.  It’s the development scenario laid out in the original environmental submission this time around. The complete document record of the review is available online.

You have to read all the way to the end of the Telegram article, though, to find any reference to the environmental panel’s January decision.  And even then the fact the panel told NALCOR their work was fundamentally lacking is presented as if it were merely the innocent stimulus to further action by glorious team at NALCOR:

Timelines associated with the joint federal-provincial environmental assessment panel have dragged on longer than expected.

The panel said Nalcor’s previous filings were lacking.

A pesky inconvenience at worst.

But as a result of this little setback, NALCOR did all this wonderful work, which the Telegram has now told us all about.  Now the panel will “now assess those filings before deciding how to proceed.”


In the news business, they call it burying the lede.  That’s a news story that starts out with secondary information and puts the main point farther down the piece.  News stories are usually written with the most important thing at the top and the least important information at the bottom.  Some call the style an inverted pyramid because the big part is on top.

The style evolved over time and it has a number of advantages.  People skimming quickly through a newspaper can get the main point of each story by only reading the first sentence or first paragraph.  Editors running the story who are also jammed for space can safely hack off stuff at the end without losing the important information.

What makes this Telegram story stand out is that it doesn’t just bury the news, it puts the kernel of hard news in a place where editors would normally cut.  Not only that, but people may not even read all the way to the end.  And if they only read the first bit, they’d be fooled into believing that everything is hunky dory with the Lower Churchill when – as a matter of fact – it isn’t.

This Telegram story could easily have been written in the provincial government’s communications department.  But it wasn’t.  And that’s where an article like this  gets it’s persuasive impact on readers.

In the marketing world, a favourable news story is worth considerably more than any amount of paid advertising. That’s because the news story comes with the perception that the news is vetted by a reporter and a layer of editors and ultimately the producer or owner. If it is in the paper or on the air, it must be newsworthy and the information in it implicitly comes with a stamp of truthfulness.

Research tends to bear out that perception.  A 2008 Ipsos poll of Canadians reported that 69% of respondents had trust and confidence in conventional Canadian news media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly”.  A more recent Gallup poll of American audiences suggests that Americans have considerable faith in conventional news media, even if it is lower than Canadian.

The distortion of reality, the burying in a wider sense, isn’t just confined to this sort of writing. You can find it as well in the stuff that doesn’t get reported locally at all, ever. A good example of that more recently was a story in the Toronto Star on energy issues.  It appeared five days before the Telegram puff piece on NALCOR and it goes to one of the major problems with the Lower Churchill project:  a lack of markets.

The massive, state-of-the-art B├ęcancour cogeneration electricity plant is capable of powering 550,000 homes. At the moment, however, the only action its gas turbines are getting comes from the dehumidifiers that prevent them from rusting out.

Apart from providing steam for an industrial park neighbour, the plant, 150 kilometres northeast of Montreal, sits largely idle, victim of policies and planning in a province overrun with electricity.

Such is the extraordinary electricity surplus in Quebec that several hundred million dollars are being spent and lost each year dealing with the problem, and consumers are footing the bill.

Hydro-Quebec has so much surplus capacity that it can afford to shutter this plant and others.  The company is still building more hydro and wind capacity.  it forecasts a surplus for 2011 that is enough to power 77 billion 100 watt light bulbs for an hour.

Try and think of the last time any one of the conventional local media reported any discussion of the Lower Churchill that did anything but report government pronouncements or reaction to government pronouncements?

Keep trying. 

There might be one or two, but by far they are outweighed with the sort of stuff the Telegram ran in late August burying the news about the Lower Churchill from last January under a mountain of cotton-candy fluff.

- srbp -

* 2009 average paid circulation for the Saturday Telegram was 40,166 according to the Canadian Newspaper Association.

Transcontinental claims the Telegram reaches 78% of adults in the St. John’s census metropolitan area and 88% of “managers and professionals.”

Updated 0848 to clarify a sentence.


pig said...

The article also states that the current idleness and surplus is affected by two factors: the stagnant economy, particularly in the U.S. and the low price of natural gas. At some point the U.S. economy will pick up along with demand for clean electricity. As for natural gas that picture is much less certain of change - prices are expected to be low for a while to come - but it is not exactly green but only greener (it releases approximately half the emissions of an oil-fired thermal plant).

It's an insightful article and you've made a useful link but I remain convinced that thermal plants across the Maritimes and the U.S. will be replaced, to some extent, by new transmission and green power from Canada.

Ursula said...

In 2010 St. John's CLI score over a 5 year trend was 80 - +3.5 EPPY.(although still below average ).

An article in Maclean's , ranking the "smartest" cities ,said that St. John's has shown the most improvement .

Paradoxically , the people of St. John's appear to be "getting smarter" , while The Telegram leaves the impression that, to use a pejorative term ,it is "Dumbing down"....

WJM said...

At some point the U.S. economy will pick up along with demand for clean electricity.

No, at some point the U.S. economy will pick up along with demand for electricity. The economy is pretty well agnostic when it comes to caring about whether or not that electricity is "clean" or not, but to the extent that it does have a belief, the U.S. doesn't tend to view big-dam hydro as terribly "clean".

Ed Hollett said...

There are a few things that you should bear in mind, pig:

1. You are right about demand coming back and about some aging infrastructure going but, as the The Torstar article also notes everyone is busily putting in place alternatives. Quebec has 8,000 MWs of hydro and wind coming.

2. The main point of this post is that the LC is basically a long, long way off, despite the spin you keep seeing.

3. As I have been saying for some months now, there are a host of opportunities out there but provincial government energy policy officially blocks, stalls, stymies or otherwise impairs anything other than a project which lacks an economic or environmental rationale.

What current government policy misses are opportunities.

We could be doing lots of other things and when the LC is attractive or feasible, someone will build it.

When have you ever heard of a government development policy that knowingly frustrates development? Well, our energy development policy does.

All of what you said is true, but the only way that would change the future for the LC is if no one else was doing anything. LC isn't the only energy game in town. NALCOR is not competitive and that is - bizarre as it seems - the official government policy.