11 December 2009

Fortis/ENEL Expropriation, one year later

Outside the legislature on Wednesday, Premier Danny Williams had this to say about the legal and financial problems that are still hanging around after last December’s seizure of assets by the government under a hastily compiled expropriation bill.

The expropriation will come with a purchase price, but Williams said he now plans to deduct the cost of severance and environmental cleanup from the final amount.

"So, if the possible environmental exposure and, or, the severance were X amount, and the amount that the assets were valued at were substantially less, well, then obviously there would be no payments of cash from the government," Williams said.

One of the great unreported facts of this expropriation – unreported by the conventional media, that is – is that the expropriation didn’t just affect AbitibiBowater.


Included in the seizure were assets of Newfoundland and Labrador-based Fortis Inc and an Italian company called ENEL. 

The former was involved in a hydro project that supplied power to the former Abitibi mill at Grand Falls-Windsor and sold the rest to the provincial energy corporation.

The latter was involved in a hydro project at Star Lake that had absolutely nothing to do with supplying anything to the mill.  The Star Lake generating plant was built in response to a call for proposals by the province’s energy corporation about a decade ago. The plant supplied power to the grid to reduce emissions from the diesel plant at Holyrood.

Now if you take the Premier’s comments at face value you get a truly amazing thing and one that is unlikely to be swallowed that easily by the companies involved.

If there are any environmental liabilities related to the Abitibi mill, it would be quite a stretch to suggest that ENEL and Fortis somehow have any responsibility for them given that their operations were not for running the mill.  ENEL has got a real case in this respect, one would suppose.

By the Premier’s construction a company like ENEL could undertake legitimate business activities based on a government contract entered into in good faith by all parties only to find itself, in less than a decade, not only without the assets it paid for but without any compensation whatsoever for the government seizure.

And the excuse for stiffing them is that they somehow gained a liability for something they had no responsibility for in the first place.

This is one of those moments where you’d wonder if the Premier would be quite so calm about it all if someone were trying to pull the same stunt on him.

Meanwhile, one wonders if the rapprochement between the provincial Conservatives and their federal cousins might possibly have something to do with trying to get Ottawa to protect the Newfoundland and Labrador treasury from the fall-out of last year’s seizure.  The federal government has to deal with the international repercussions – like the NAFTA challenge Abitibi filed – but there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping the feds from recovering their costs once the international bits are settled.

Of course, all of this really makes a mockery of recent efforts by the provincial government to win sympathy for its case against Hydro-Quebec.

If the Americans really started to care about it all anyway, might those same New York financiers who supposedly listened sympathetically to the luncheon speech a couple of weeks ago feel quite so favourably disposed to the Premier’s cause if they got the full story on how Fortis and ENEL got screwed over by the Premier’s seizure?

This expropriation business is a long way from settled and the bills are a long way from being paid.  Something says some of the bills won’t be settled in cash, either. 

Payback will be a mother.