07 July 2009

An equity stake in the province’s natural heritage

A cynic, Oscar Wilde once wrote, is a fellow who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

There is no word, apparently for someone who knows neither the price of stringing hydro lines around Gros Morne National Park nor the value of leaving the park free of the steel girders and humming wires.

In his first media scrum since returning from a weeklong junket to Europe,  Premier Danny Williams said that he was prepared to risk the World Heritage designation for Gros Morne because the cost of the alternative might be $100 million. 

“Might be” since the thing had not been properly costed, according to the Premier:

"We can't just start carving out those kinds of dollars … without even have a proper costing. It's wrong to oversimplify it, but if it meant putting it into health care as opposed to putting it into UNESCO, I would put it into health care, he said.

The value of Gros Morne, untrammelled by NALCOR Energy’s plan to build a giant power line from Labrador to the northeast Avalon, should be obvious to all those who appreciate the national park’s natural beauty.

It’s value  - sans girders - to the provincial tourism department should be equally obvious to everyone who has watched a television ad or looked through a tourism marketing brochure.

But in the meantime, that’s a pretty startling admission:  that after four years and as the project barrels along, the proponents don’t know what it would cost to find another route a few miles to the east of the one they have in mind.

It smacks of scrambling rather than a careful weighing of all options, each properly studied and costed.

Then again, that’s what you’d get if you just abandoned the process you started and decided to go down an entirely different road from the one first proposed. You wind up looking at plans made 25 or 30 years ago, ones that involve slinging lines along a stretch of ground that – when the plans were hatched – weren’t inside a national park.  The national park didn’t exist then.

But the whole thing gets a wee bit bizarre – there’s that all-too-familiar-word again –when you consider that the Premier seems to think $100 million is too much money to talk about:

"It's not as simple as that, but we do have to strike that balance. It's not a small amount of money. It is a significant amount of money."

This is a guy who supposedly is used to dealing with grand schemes that cost in the billions.  The one he wants to push through the park is estimated at upwards of $10 billion.  Even the low-end estimates, which few would believe, put the total cost at somewhere between six and eight billion.  The infeed line alone, the one through the park, is likely to cost a couple of billion.

$100 million against $2.0 billion.

What is that? 


That’s like half an offshore equity stake’s worth of only a fraction of the whole project.

Surely to Heavens, when put in those terms, Danny Williams can figure out that shifting the steel girders outside the park isn’t really much of anything to do.

He can think of it as his equity stake in the natural heritage of our province.  A piece of the action that he can pass on to future generations.

Shifting the power lines outside Gros Morne might not conjure up the big buck announcements the Premier seems to thrive on, but by recognising the simple value of unadulterated nature, Danny Williams could show that he actually knows both the price of something and the value of something far greater.


One Trick Pony Update:  Apparently, as much as Danny Williams likes to talk about the importance of going it alone, the whole Gros Morne thing seems to be a bit of a dodge to try and force some money out of Uncle Ottawa to fund the whole Lower Churchill scheme:

"If the federal government is interested in an alternate route because of the importance of the UNESCO designation, because of the importance obviously of Gros Morne as a federal park, then I would expect the feds to participate with us in rerouting that cost," Williams said Tuesday.

The cost of developing an alternate route could be as much as $100 million, Williams said, but he added that was a preliminary estimate.

"If in fact we can get support from the federal government and if in fact we can justify another route, then that's something I would prefer to do ... but I can't turn around and say today without proper costing that that's something I would definitely do," he said.

"It's a significant amount of money."

Of course, the project has never been a go-it-alone affair.  Williams has been trying to find federal backing for his grand design from the beginning.