01 December 2009

Hydro Quebec has leverage on Danny Williams

If Premier Danny Williams listened to Opposition Leader Danny Williams he’d know what went wrong with efforts to develop Labrador hydroelectric power.

Here’s Danny Williams in November 2002 in full fury over a proposed deal on the Lower Churchill:

Mr. Speaker, could the Premier please tell the people why he did not use the Lower Churchill as a bargaining lever to address the inequities of the Upper Churchill contract? Would the Premier explain why he quit on the objective of every single Government of Newfoundland and Labrador since the deal was signed over thirty years ago?


Before he got elected, Danny Williams said there would be no deal on the Lower Churchill under his administration without redress for the 1969 Churchill Falls contract.

He rejected a joint Hydro Quebec/Ontario Hydro/SNC Lavalin proposal to develop the Lower Churchill in partnership with Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

Williams gave away what he himself described in 2002 as leverage.

That part was reported by the conventional media.

Then Williams went a step further.

After rejecting the proposal out of hand in order to “go-it-alone” and in complete contradiction to his own stated commitment on redress,  Williams then spent five years secretly trying to get Hydro Quebec to take an ownership stake in the plan to develop 3,000 megawatts on the Lower Churchill leaving the 1969 contract “to one side”.

According to the province’s natural resources minister:

“We know that if you come in here as an equity player that you have to have a good return on your investment. And we want you to have a good return on your investment.”

That part of the saga – Williams secret efforts, without redress - hasn’t been reported by the conventional media and likely never will.

At the same time as he was trying to court Hydro Quebec as a business partner, Williams lambasted Quebec as politically volatile:

Three weeks ago, in a bid to garner support for the massive Lower Churchill hydroelectric project in Labrador, Williams said Canada should reduce its reliance on energy from Quebec because the province is too politically unstable.

"The more we can spread out our energy supply means that we won't be totally dependent on Quebec for energy which, given the volatility of the politics in Quebec, could be a very, very sensitive situation in the years to come,'' Williams said Sept. 27.

He later apologised if anyone took offense but would not withdraw the remark.  Williams said he was only described the “reality.”

Not surprisingly, Hydro Quebec wasn’t interested in any Lower Churchill deal involving Danny Williams. 

With the Quebec market gone and the Ontario one looking less promising, Williams and his crew looked elsewhere.  

A potential deal with Rhode Island (not that far from New York city - died for an obvious reason:  Lower Churchill power was simply too expensive.  By the time the very expensive project got its power all the way to Rhode Island – along with all the American-side wheeling charges -  Rhode Islanders just wouldn’t/couldn’t afford the bill.  And let’s not even start talking about the depressed prices and forget the race to develop cheaper alternatives that are just as or even more green than Gull Island and Muskrat Falls.

Not content with the failures to date, the Williams’ administration then tried to undermine the 1969 contract with a clumsy legal ploy that would have given control of the entire Churchill River to the provincial energy corporation.

That failed too.

With no markets, no money could be raised.  And with no markets and no money, the very expensive project just wouldn’t fly. Even Danny Williams had to admit the obvious, recently.

And now, with that as prologue, Danny Williams and his energy corporation are turning back to an idea he rejected five years ago: redress for the 1969 Churchill Falls deal.

Theirs is nothing more than a dolled up version of an old whine:  “Aw come on, it’s just not fair.”

And it isn’t fair, really.

But that doesn’t matter, as Danny Williams, opposition leader, and Danny Williams, lawyer, know very well. Without some sort of leverage, there isn’t any way to get at the 1969 contract and amend its terms.  Whatever leverage he had, Danny Williams has managed to either fritter it away or take a giant axe to it.

About the only saving grace for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians is that Hydro Quebec is unlikely to take the request to renegotiate the deal seriously; not likely that is, unless there is a chance of making it even sweeter for them in other ways.  There are always things that could get better for Hydro Quebec.

Take, for example, the tax free status of the project until 2016.  In the early 1990s, HQ wanted to have that extended as part of a Lower Churchill deal.  The idea fell on the deaf ears of the Liberal administration of Clyde Wells.

Maybe Danny Williams would be more amenable given that he is quite obviously jammed up:  he needs a political score for the 2011 election much more than Hydro Quebec needs any talks or more money.

Then there is the issue of shares.  Right now Hydro Quebec holds about 35%. Danny Williams has already said that he was willing to see Hydro Quebec gain a good return on its investment.  Perhaps more shares in CFLCo and a new corporate structure could be worked out in exchange for cash.  That way, Hydro Quebec gains back some of the cash it would have to pay the corporation it already owns a significant chunk of:

[Claude Garcia] also noted that new benefits to the project operator, Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corp., would also provide some juice to Hydro-Quebec because it has a one-third interest in it. Nalcor Energy holds the remainder.

And after all, Williams is on record as saying that  - at some point – principle converts to cash.

Even without the prospect of a deal, Hydro Quebec can win big concessions just for talking.  They can get Williams to shut up about transmission on the Lower Churchill.  They can get him to withdraw NALCOR’s current procedural assault on Hydro Quebec Transenergie’s wheeling rates.

Maybe there’s something else no one has even thought of yet.  After all, re-opening the contract, as NALCOR has asked, means putting everything on the table.

churchillfallssigning1969[4] Hydro Quebec actually has nothing to lose in entering talks quietly.  In fact, they have everything to gain.  On the other side, Danny Williams and NALCOR – like BRINCO 40 years ago – are in a tough spot.


It’s great when you have it.

Sucks when you don’t.

And right now Danny Williams and NALCOR have no leverage.