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Pam Frampton: Muskrat Falls — the great divide

Hydro Place in St. John’s, headquarters of Nalcor Energy and subsidiary Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.
Hydro Place in St. John’s, headquarters of Nalcor Energy and subsidiary Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.
Pam Frampton
Pam Frampton

The more I think about Muskrat Falls, how it was sold to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador as a grand plan to deliver cheap, renewable energy at stable rates for years to come, the greater the sense of betrayal I feel.

I mean, I can see why some people were all for it, or at least ambivalent about it, at first. Who wouldn’t be pleased to hear that the best project ever undertaken in this province was about to get underway, bringing gobs of good jobs and cheap electricity with it, harnessing the power of our own resources, on our own terms. It was an attractive idea and a persuasive message. It played to our strong sense of pride and nationalism.

And it was sold successfully to a great number of people. That is, except for a handful of those knowledgeable enough about hydroelectricity and markets, price and demand to start poking holes in the rationale, and those on the ground who warned about potential environmental, cultural and geophysical ramifications.

I’m grateful for those people who had the courage to stick their necks out when so many others did not, even if it got them nothing but public derision and — for some — time in jail.

So here we are now, standing on tiptoe as the debt creeps up to our necks …

When former premier Brian Peckford, for example, wrote a letter from his home in British Columbia in 2012 expressing concern that there had not been sufficient impartial assessment of the project, he was flicked away like a troubling mosquito by then Premier Kathy Dunderdale, who called his missive “A message from afar, about a debate that you haven’t been engaged in, or public information sessions that you haven’t participated in…”

When the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Utilities Board said it couldn’t determine whether Muskrat Falls was the least-cost option for the province because it didn’t have up-to-date information to work with, former premier Danny Williams cast doubt on the PUB’s credibility.

“I have a serious concern that the PUB quotes extensively the personal opinions of former bureaucrats and academia, while ignoring the world-class experts at Nalcor," he said.

Well, of course Nalcor was going to bang the drum for Muskrat Falls — look at all the lucrative positions the project is bankrolling there. Even Crown corporations dream of empire.

But even some people who were lukewarm about the project started having reservations when they saw reasonable critics asking sensible questions being treated unreasonably. “Writing letters and voicing opinions take time, thought and energy, and none of those ordinary citizens are getting paid to raise red flags,” I wrote back then.

So here we are now, standing on tiptoe as the debt creeps up to our necks — $12.7 billion and counting, money that has to be repaid through electricity rates by a population hovering around half a million souls; a population that is aging and could well start to shrink once power bills double and triple.

Read the entire series here

The legacy of Muskrat Falls, at least from today’s vantage point, is that it is the most divisive project and policy decision this province has ever felt the brunt of.

It pits those who can’t afford to pay for expensive electricity against the few who can; Labradorians living in the shadow of the dam and the uncertainty of that position against Newfoundlanders who worry about heat bills — not flooding or mudslides. Indigenous people whose traditional food supply could become tainted from methylmercury versus those whose biggest worry about what they can eat is news of a product recall at the supermarket. It underscores the difference between those people making a good living — while it lasts — from well-paying Muskrat Falls jobs and those whose wages are stagnant. Politicians and power-brokers who orchestrated this boondoggle versus ordinary people who trusted in their decisions. It causes one province fiscal pain and gives another a power gain.

Yes, quite the legacy. The great divide.

Perhaps, Muskrat Falls will represent a sort of political coming of age in this province. A coming of age that should have happened because of the Upper Churchill Falls debacle.

Maybe we won’t soon again believe in the shiny promise of someone’s megaproject vision if it sounds too good to be true.

Whatever the outcome in the long term, or whether Muskrat Falls will have a lasting effect on our psyche, the words of then premier Dunderdale on Oct. 30, 2012, have never rung more true. 

“This project will have a tremendous impact on the people of Newfoundland and Labrador for years to come.”

Pam Frampton is The Telegram's associate managing editor. Email Twitter: pam_frampton

Read the entire series here

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