04 November 2010

Williams’ shift sends Lower Churchill back to enviro drawing board for second time this year

As labradore has it, the panel conducting the environmental reviewing the Lower Churchill project is asking NALCOR  - the provincial government’s energy company - to submit a raft of new documentation now that the Premier has decided to completely revise the project.

Not surprising.

Not surprising at all.

Nor would it be surprising to find that both the panel and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency are privately spitting nickels in frustration at the twists and turns they’ve gone through to deal with this project.

Last January, the panel explained to NALCOR that the company’s submissions up to that point didn’t justify the project, as presented.  You got it.  NALCOR could not justify the project.  They also couldn’t demonstrate things like the claimed greenhouse gas emission reductions.  That’s because they don’t have any customers to show how the hydro juice will actually displace fossil fuels used in electricity generation anywhere on the planet.

NALCOR spent eight months  - until August 2010 - revising and revamping stuff, sending it along to the panel and then out to the interested parties for detailed review.

The Innu picked up on the fact that NALCOR and the provincial government were now substantially revising the project – the smaller dam and a whole new transmission routing – and said exactly that in their response filed with the environmental review panel. 

Based on the Premier’s comments at the end of October, the panel had to get the whole thing sorted in order to comply with the panel’s terms of reference.  Specifically, they are asking NALCOR to document:

a.  Changes to the project description, construction (including schedule) and operation;
b.  Transmission interconnection lines;
c.  Changes to accommodation facilities;
d.  New cost estimates;
e.  New socio-economic data and timing, particularly employment, work scheduling approach, labour requirements, goods and services;
f.  Changes to reservoir clearing and impoundment and validity of model results (mercury, flow, ice modeling, etc.);
g.  Harmful alteration, disruption and destruction of fish habitat and implications for the proposed Fish Habitat Compensation Plan;
h.  Potential aquatic and terrestrial impacts;
i.  Traditional land use and Aboriginal issues;
j.  Any other relevant information.

This is going to take another year or two, at least and the whole review is going to get way more interesting. 

The project the panel has right now consists entirely of two dams and a connection back to Churchill Falls so the power can head out through Quebec.  The line to Soldier’s Pond, near St. John’s is entirely within the province so that isn’t part of the federal review. But that’s it.  All that NALCOR is pushing is the same project Brian Tobin pushed in 1998.

Until now, the line to Nova Scotia simply didn’t exist except as a political throw-away line.  Events of the past two months have changed all that.  If NALCOR really intends to ship power to Nova Scotia – as discussed just within the past week -  they will now have to lay that on the table, in detail.  There will also be new interested parties looking for a say in what happens in the line from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia and then maybe in whatever connections will happen in New Brunswick. An already complex project just got a whole lot more complex.

Don’t forget that this project was supposed to be under construction right at this moment.  NALCOR was supposed to sanction it in 2009. 

This latest bad news comes on top of other setbacks and a reminder of the biggest inconvenient truth about the legendary project. Substantial chunks of the Innu community aren’t happy with the project. And if that weren’t enough, an analyst at the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council thinks the province needs to get its fiscal house in order before thinking of adding at least $6.0 billion to the public debt load.

But perhaps the biggest setback of all for Danny Williams’ plan was one entirely of his own making.  After rejecting a proposal to develop the deal with Hydro-Quebec and Ontario Hydro, Williams then spent five years  - entirely in secret - trying to get HQ to take an equity stake in the project. He even offered to set aside his political commitment that he would only sign a Lower Churchill deal if HQ provided redress for the 1969 contract.  HQ just wasn’t interested:  they’d already moved on to other big projects.

- srbp -