07 August 2006

Something under the bed is drooling

The agreement between Hydro Quebec and BRINCO for the development and operation of the Churchill Falls hydro-electric project stands as one of the most lop-sided agreements in Canadian history.

The provisions that garner the most attention are the ones requiring Churchill Falls Labrador Corporation (CFLCo)- the company managing the site, jointly owned by Hydro Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro - to sell power to Hydro Quebec at a phenomenally low, fixed rate until 2016 and from 2016 to 2041 to sell the power at fixed rates that are lower again.

The Upper Churchill contract remains a touchstone for nationalist and other ire in Newfoundland and Labrador. Such is the emotion raised by the subject that it rivals the popular hatred in pre-1933 Germany of reparations under the Versailles Treaty that officially ended the Great War.

Much has been written in the past five years about the Upper Churchill contract with claims as to how much money Hydro Quebec makes from the project versus what accrues to Newfoundland and Labrador through the Crown-owned Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

In a December 2005 article, The Independent claimed that "[d]ue to the lopsided nature of the 1969 contract, Hydro-Quebec is currently earning an annual profit of close to $2 billion compared to Newfoundland and Labrador's $32 million." No source is cited for the statement. An August 2005 article in the same newspaper claimed "since 1972 [Hydro Quebec] has gathered an estimated $23.8 billion in revenues; Newfoundland and Labrador has made approximately $680 million." Again, no source is cited for the information.

The same information was cited by Memorial University professor Dr. Chris Dunn in a February 2005 article on the Atlantic Accord. Dunn cites The Independent's so-called balance sheet on Confederation since 1949.

Former Premier Brian Tobin told Toronto's Empire Club in 1996 that:

Hydro-Quebec is buying Churchill Falls power at 1969 prices and re- selling it at 1996 prices. Under the agreement, this will go on for another 45 years. The windfall profits for Hydro-Quebec are immense ... and unconscionable.

Since full power came on stream from Churchill Falls in 1976, Hydro- Quebec has received benefits averaging about $600 million a year. Newfoundland and Labrador has received benefits that averaged $23 million a year. Recently, that has slipped to $16 million a year.

From 1976 to 1996, Hydro-Quebec received 96 per cent of the benefits, while Newfoundland and Labrador got only 4 per cent. To put this in perspective, in 1995, while Hydro-Quebec received benefits of $1.4 million a day from Churchill Falls, Newfoundland and Labrador received just $45,000 a day.
His successor, Danny Williams has made much the same argument using much of the same language and the same figures.

At least two things are noteworthy in the examples provided above, examples that are consistent with virtually every single comment on the Upper Churchill project and alleged revenues gained by Hydro Quebec from what Brian Tobin clearly asserted was the practice of reselling Upper Churchill power at windfall prices.

First, not a single source - let alone a verifiable source - is cited for the figures.

Second, the figures vary widely and one might also note wildly. Brian Tobin's figure of $600 million annually is low, even allowing for electricity prices in the mid-1990s. Danny Williams claim of $1.0 billion is large but some of the more extreme claims, such as those of The Independent have put the figure as high as $2.0 billion annually.

There is one assessment that does provide some slightly more detailed information. A paper prepared by the Centre for Spatial Economics for the Royal Commission on renewing and strengthening our place in Canada reproduces analysis completed by the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Finance. It is important to note, however that the figures represent theoretical losses for Newfoundland and Labrador as a result of the long-term, low-fixed-price power sale portions of the Upper Churchill Contract.

The Department of Finance estimated lost revenue for both CFLCo and for the Newfoundland and Labrador government for the period 1991 to 2001 based on several scenarios and assuming that power could have been sold for $20, $30 and $40 per megawatt hour above existing rates.

On the face of it, these assumptions are nothing short of fantastic. They are entirely devoid of any of the historical basis on which the original development took place. In and of themselves, the assumptions proceed from the very best case scenario in which the original contract negotiators were not only free of financial pressures but were also able to foresee subsequent developments in energy pricing such that they would provide the best possible power sales terms less than 20 years after the project achieved full power.

On top of that, the finance department estimates - at least as reproduced by the Royal Commission paper - that CFLCo would turn over all revenue to the shareholders and that, in turn, Newfoundland andLabradorr Hydro would have turned over all additional revenue to the provincial government.1

If we accept all those assumptions, the province's Department of Finance projected that for the years between 1991 and 2001, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador would have received the following amounts of revenue:

Year: Amount (pricing assumption per megawatt hour [mwh])

1991: $294.0 million (+$20/mwh) to $589.1 million (+$40/mwh)

2001: $315.0 million (+$20/mwh) to $630.0 million/mwh

This is a far cry from figures cited in any of the examples given above. Moreover, it must be borne in mind that these are theoretical losses of revenue. No evidence has been presented that Hydro Quebec actually sells Upper Churchill power at the highest possible prices and therebycollectss the windfalls Brian Tobin claimed. This is not to say of course that such a situation might not theoretically exist; but it is a long way between theory and proof or even between theory and a conclusion based on a balance of probabilities.

All we can say with certainty of these figures - the only ones from an identifiable source - is that they represent theoretical losses based entirely on the assumptions of the economists conducting the analysis. If they assume different can-openers, then the entire analysis heads for the ash can.

Some will undoubtedly wonder why this argument about amounts is important. After all, the nuclear winter theorists only confirmed that nuclear war would be an unmitigated disaster. Whether or not Quebec is reaping windfalls or the magnitude of the windfalls is irrelevant: the contract is still a disaster for Newfoundland and Labrador, some would argue.

This would be true except that it appears that entire argument is based on fantasy. it should go without saying that fantasy is no basis for public policy.

More importantly however, the Upper Churchill contract has become nothing more than a convenient tool which successive politicians have used to bludgeon their adversaries for more than three decades. Such is the impact of the Upper Churchill mythology that an otherwise viable agreement with Quebec in 1991 to develop the Lower Churchill fell apart in large measure due to fear in both Quebec and this province that references to the Upper Churchill agreement would cause a political and popular backlash in both provinces.2

In the same way that the Conservative Opposition attacked Wells on the matter in 1991, Progressive Conservative leader Danny Williams - aided by then-Hydro chairman Dean MacDonald - used Lower Churchill negotiations and the spectre of the Upper Churchill to bludgeon Roger Grimes a decade later. The only difference was that the 1991 Conservatives felt a deal ought to have been done.

Danny Williams has repeatedly exploited popular fears of the upper Churchill at every juncture.Hee repeats the pledge that he will not do a bad deal, as was done in the 1969 agreement. Williams repeated use of the Upper Churchill contract as a political device is more than mere partisan rhetoric.

At the very least, his enthusiasm for describing Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as victims of foreigners and corrupt or stupid local politicians serves only to undermine public confidence that they - individually or collectively - can ever negotiate a "good deal." So widespread is the self-doubt that has come from decades of the victim myth that in the recent film contrasting Newfoundland and Ireland, comedian Mary Walsh lambasted her fellow Newfoundlanders as too stunned to make a decent deal.

The "No bad deals" pledge may also lead Williams himself to poor decisions. There is good reason to believe that Williams walked away from the Hebron offshore oil deal, at least in part, for fear that some would argue - utterly without reason - that it was a repeat of the Upper Churchill give-away.

In the recent pursuit of the Lower Churchill development, Williams has also made questionable decisions. He tossed aside what appeared to be a viable and beneficial proposal from Ontario and Quebec in favour of the go-it-alone option. In making the announcement Williams made much of the psychological aspects of his decision with references to being master of our own destiny. Yet he made no mention of the financial impact of doubling the provincial debt in pursuing the $9.0 billion project solely on the credit of Newfoundland and Labrador taxpayers.

By the same token, Williams' option of avoiding sales to Quebec might also prove to be so difficult a feat that the project will not be built. Worse still, it might be built but under economic terms that will be far less beneficial to the province than ones that were already in front of his face. In hydro-electricity development, as in oil and gas, timing is the key and Williams may well have fouled the timing for the Lower Churchilldrivenn largely by a demon of his own invention.

The only way to get past this issue is to de-claw the Hydro-Quebec demon so carefully created by so many politicians and others for their own, often self-serving purposes. Only by understanding what actually occurred in 1969 or at any time in the past, can we expect to make sound public policy decisions and, in the process, come to appreciate that collectively, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are already capable of mastering their own destiny. They can never do so on the basis of fantasy and fear.

By de-clawing the Hydro Quebec demon we do not ignore an ignominious contract; rather, we restore to ourselves collectively and individually the wisdom to succeed.

If we do not despatch the Hydro-Quebec bogeymann lurking underneath our political beds, we may find ourselves saddled with an enormous and entirely unnecessary financial burden from a genuinely bad deal, or worse still, left with a Lower Churchill project that failed for nothing other than a politican's fear of saying yes to a very good deal.


1 First we assume a can-opener redux. The authors of the report state the revenue was assumed to be turned over to the shareholders and then carry forward certain other assumptions about the theoretical impact of Equalization reductions on the resulting revenue. Unfortunately, this is yet another huge assumption which has equally huge implications for the rest of the analysis.

Until the early 1990s, the provincial government did not make a habit of claiming dividends from Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. NLH is the shareholder in CFLCo, not the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Since the theoretical assumptions were applied only to the decade before 2001, we have no way of knowing what would have occurred in the 1980s, and hence what the financial state of the provincial government would have been in the recession of the 1990s. This is what drove the claiming of dividends and therefore the assumption in the cited report that government would have ultimately received all added Newfoundland and Labrador revenues from the theoretical projections.

2 See, for example, Jason Churchill, "Power politics and questions of political will: a history of hydroelectric development in Labrador's Churchill river basin, 1949-2002", prepared for the Royal Commission on renewing and strengthening our place in Canada, March 2003.
Specifically, the proposal called for a 30 year contract that would initially grant Hydro Quebec access to 2,400 MW of power but this amount would decline over time such that by the end of the contract in 2031, Newfoundland and Labrador would have had 3,200 MW available to either use, to export, or some combination thereof. Newfoundland and Labrador would also have provided energy security well into the twenty-fi rst century and access to 800 MW of power at 3 mills/KWH. This would have granted the province competitive energy rates in terms of the Canadian average and the province would have secured a $12 billion asset which would have generated income and employment into the subsequent century. The deal also included an escalation clause and stipulated that Hydro-Quebec would pay approximately between 73-74 mills for the energy. Additionally, the project would involve the Lower Churchill Development Corporation and the province served to receive upwards of $14 billion through its 51 per cent share in the company. This amount could have been increased if the province decided to buy out Ottawa's 49 per cent share. The deal was projected to be of far greater value than the Hibernia Project. In terms of personal income benefits it was expected, by 2001 to have yielded $2.7 billion in terms of personal income benefits as opposed to $2.1 billion for Hibernia and $710 million in gross government revenue as opposed to $610 million for Hibernia. (Briefing to cabinet, December 1991, cited as footnote 100, page 55.)