19 February 2009

Paranoid delusions and the pain of loss

The usual crowd on voice of the cabinet minister’s night time show are in a lather over Konrad Yakabuski’s column in the Thursday Globe and Mail suggesting the expropriation of AbitibiBowater’s hydro assets was part of a Machiavellian plot to guarantee low cost power to Vale Inco for its Long harbour project.

Abitibi hydro – 116 MW.  Vale Inco need – 100 MW starting in 2012.

Now there are a couple of things right off the bat. 

First, the world can always be reinvented to fit the paranoid delusion of the moment and the tinfoil hat brigade thrives on paranoia and delusion.  In this case, they loved the Globe for featuring a border war with Quebec despite the facts to the contrary about the border issue.  It’s a pet cause of theirs and they felt vindicated that the Globe had supposedly paid attention to them and what they think is the truth.

Once the Premier stated that there really wasn’t an issue, the same crowd decided – as they now argue – that the evil Globe is just trying to stir up controversy and undermine their local hero. 

Why they pay so much attention to one newspaper is a mystery.

Second, there was no apparent shortage of electricity on the island.  The closure of the Stephenville mill  in 2005 freed up a bunch of megawatts and there is some extra capacity around in the system for the foreseeable future anyway. There are several small hydro projects in various stages of planning all of which could have been developed, if needed, to meet the demand at Long Harbour.

Beyond that it is just too much to imagine that any government would deliberately throw one crowd out of work in order to put another bunch somewhere else to work.

Yakabuski is right that the Crown expropriated the most valuable assets of the AbitibiBowater operation at Grand Falls-Windsor.  The really valuable one in the long run is the hydro generation both from existing projects and the ones on the planning books. The provincial government expropriated not only the mill-related generation but also seized Star Lake which was built to supply power directly into the electricity grid on the island.  They also cancelled all AB’s water rights thereby preventing them from establishing any generating capacity that wasn’t controlled by the hydro corporation.

Yakabuski’s musing really comes apart on the matter of timing.  Once the workers voted down the second restructuring proposal and the company announced the mill would close, the mill was gone. Expropriation simply allowed NALCO to scoop up all the hydro assets, establish a near complete monopoly on electricity generation and do it all for little or no cost. Expropriation didn’t cause the mill closure; it was – at best – a by-product.

The letter that seems to have prompted Yakabuski’s column has to be seen in a wider context as well. There are a great many people in central Newfoundland who never believed for a moment the mill would ever close.  They believed, apparently, that it was all a bluff or that the government had some sort of magical plan that would make all the hurt go away.

Its author poses a series of questions that really should be seen through the lens of that shock. Many people in central Newfoundland are looking for answers for what, to them, must appear to be an impossible outcome of this whole process.

People naturally come up with all sorts of possible explanations for really bad things and this letter must be seen in this light. Great plots make for good fiction but they are usually not the stuff of the real world.

In the real world, bad things happen for perfectly understandable and far less complicated reasons.