01 September 2009

Curiouser and curiouser!

Even in the Land Through the Looking Glass that is Newfoundland and Labrador these days, a news release about an emergency session of the House of Assembly to deal with an amendment to  a single piece of legislation is very odd, indeed.

As the official version puts it:

In the course of negotiating a water management agreement for the Churchill River, CF(L)Co advised Nalcor that it felt aspects of the Energy Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador Water Rights Act infringed upon its water rights lease for the Churchill Falls development. This was not the intent of the act, and government has agreed to amend it so as to avoid any ambiguity.

First of all, one must realise, of course, that NALCOR is the parent of Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation or CFLCo.  It holds 65% of the shares, in fact, and the two companies are not completely separate entities.  They are rather closely and intimately connected, in fact.

Second of all, one must also note that the section of the Electrical Power Control Act 1994 requiring a water management agreement came into effect this past January. 

In 2007, the current administration introduced this amendment in the legislature requiring two companies trying to generate hydro from the same river to come to some agreement on water sharing have one imposed by the public utilities board.   For whatever reason the current administration did not give it force of law until early 2009.

Third of all, the original lease that CF(L)Co holds has been around since 1961.  its provisions are well known to a host people inside and outside the provincial government.   in fact, given the history of the lease, it’s probably one of the most well studied and well-understood pieces of legal documentation existing anywhere in Canada.

And that’s the really odd thing.

Well, aside from the oddity of the company effectively negotiating with Itself, and then notifying Itself in the course of negotiations that Itself had a problem with something Itself had been party to previously because that infringed on something else Itself had also been party to much earlier.

You see, there is nothing that would have been noticed during the negotiation of a water management agreement for the Churchill River since January 2009  involving NALCOR, Energy Corporation, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro or CF(L)Co or whatever name the Crown version of Sybil is using at the moment that wasn’t painfully obvious to NALCOR,  Energy Corporation Hydro or CF(L)Co or Sybil, as she then was, when the provincial government introduced the changes to the EPCA, 1994 in 2007 and then introduced the Energy Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador Water Rights Act in early 2008.

What seems to be up for discussion here is something  your humble e-scribbler pointed out back in February

If that weren’t enough, changes to the Electrical Power Control Act – passed in 2007 but only quietly implemented after the expropriation in December 2008 – ensures that NALCO can enforce its control over future developments through the Public Utilities Board.

If one takes the implication from a set of Hydro Quebec questions about the Lower Churchill environmental assessment, the proposed water management regime appears to require that Churchill Falls be run in such a way as to maximize the generation at the Gull Island and Muskrat Falls dams under all contingencies. 

This might adversely affect CF(L)Co and some of its contractual arrangements to supply power.  It would also seem to go against several sections of the original lease.

If the government news release is clear – and that is by no means obvious – then the emergency session of the legislature is likely to be about passing an amendment that removes the last clause of the water rights act.  That’s the one that requires a water management agreement be reached or that one be imposed by the public utilities board.

What’s so interesting – if that’s the case – is that this is coming in an emergency session and not simply held for the fall sitting.  An amendment to the legislation could have been made later on with the requirement to produce the amendment being made a condition of any water management agreement.

There must be some sort of threat at work here, something much more significant than the prospect of an agreement between  “Nalcor Energy or its subsidiary and CF(L)Co”.  Incidentally, CF(L)Co is a subsidiary of NALCOR. 

Rather, there might not be much hope of a deal at all in the near term.  Instead,  CF(L)Co  - perhaps at the insistence of one of its shareholders – is protecting its interests and ensuring that the legal problems inherent in the EPCA amendment and the water rights act be eliminated now, without question or condition.

And if it was anything else, like say a repeat of the old water rights reversion act, then the thing would have been trumpeted in news conference held by the Premier.  Something says he just wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to grandstand against any slight. 

Nope.  This is something government is trying to downplay, somewhat.

But rest assured:  emergency sessions like this one don’t happen every day and they sure as heck don’t come for a routine amendment, even if it is one intended merely to avoid “ambiguity”.

There’s something big behind this.

And it may not be pretty for the Lower Churchill project.