This piece
contains many questions.  I suggest
members of the public should start asking some of them. 

Let’s start
here: should this Province give away its minerals essentially for the few jobs mining
companies offer?  Should we insist on a
royalty regime for oil and gas but give back to mining companies royalties we
collect by subsidizing their power costs? 

These are
critical public policy questions.   

NL has a
history of very high unemployment rates reaching as high as 32.7% on a
seasonally unadjusted basis in 1960.  That
the Provincial Government would engage in subsidy programs to lessen this
burden was understandable, notwithstanding the fact that some attempts to
attract industry (the ERCO plant in Long Harbour being a case in point) went
beyond all reason because the number and types of subsidies awarded made a
mockery of any economic rationale. 

Yet, subsidies
continue today even though the jobless rate in the Province is down to 12% (and the true
rate is skewed by the seasonality of under employed fisher persons and plant
workers).  In Labrador West, where the
mines are proposed, the jobless rate is practically zero. 

Until the
1970s, mines were labour intensive operations. 
Since then, technologies for resource extraction have advanced; mines are
highly capital intensive rather than labour dependent.  In fact, once construction is complete, the
number of workers required to operate a mine is relatively small and in any
event many mines have a short lifespan (15 years in the case of Alderon).

December 2008 Productivity Commission, Staff Working Paper
entitled, “Productivity
in the

Industry: Measurement and Interpretation”, an independent group funded by the
Australian Government, offers support for this observation:

productivity in mining is high because the sector is relatively capital intensive.
At the same time, labour productivity in mining is also more variable over time,
again because labour represents a comparatively small share of total inputs to mining.
Hence even relatively small changes to output or labour inputs from year to year
can lead to comparatively large changes in the level of labour productivity”. The
Report continues: “The longer-term growth in labour productivity in mining is mostly
due to capital deepening (more capital available per worker hour).

 In Labrador
West, any rationale for subsidizing a new mine is undermined by the fact that most
of the ancillary services and supports are delivered not out of NL but out of Quebec
across the border, in Sept. Ille. 
Clearly, the current ‘screw Quebec’ mantra, enunciated by Premier Dunderdale,
has little to do with policy and all to do with politics.

Most people
would subscribe to the belief that sound public policies are created when their
goals are clear, their origins well-grounded and when they have met certain
tests as to whether they are appropriate and effective.

One of
those tests might be the regional unemployment rate; but, at all times the net
public benefit to the taxpayers must be considered.  In addition, if public money is being used to
create a subsidy, the public should be told the amount, not that the
information is secret because it would threaten private business interests.  In essence, the Premier is sending this
message: we should underwrite mining interests but, as to how much, it’s none
of your business.

It is one thing to offer an industry the
incentive of surplus power, but when tax payers are required to underwrite the
huge capital costs of power projects AND offer the power at a price lower than
its marginal cost, you have to ask: do we need the project under those
conditions? Whose interests are we serving? 

If the
province had surplus cheap power it wanted to monetize, as Quebec had after the
development of the huge James Bay Hydro Project, that approach might make sense
but only if the export market cannot offer better net returns after a proper
cost vs. benefit analysis of the mine or other industrial development has been

undertake a hydro project knowing, in advance, that the power is hugely
expensive, as Muskrat Falls power certainly is (21.4 cents per KWh, in 2017,
based upon the cost of service (COS) financing scheme, the financing approach used by business plus the cost of transmission and the original $6.2 billion estimate) is irresponsible. Not informing the public knowing how
much the subsidy will cost them, is difficult to reconcile.  Indeed, it fails any test of governance
appropriate in a democratic society.

remember that IOCC used its own capital to build Twin Falls as did Wabush Mines.  Vale supplied its power needs in Voisey’s Bay
at its own cost, too.  Do you not see a
disconnect between the actions of those investors and current bunch who have
their hands out?

It is good
to remember that subsidies represent part of the bounty a government collects to
otherwise pay for public services.  If it
doesn’t collect them, it must get the funds elsewhere or refuse to offer the

How much mining
subsidy is too much? 

When the NL
government forced Vale to establish a secondary processing facility in Long
Harbour, the Province, for the first time, was benefitting from more than from
a simple extraction process.  In Labrador
West, Alderon is expecting electricity for pennies per KWh (actually ~4c/kWh) yet,
they will have no secondary processing requirement. Alderon’s web site confirms
the number on its web site.  See good access to low cost (~4c/kWh) electricity produced at Churchill Falls in its Business Plan.

In essence
then, in place of the mining entities paying us for removing our resources, we
want to subsidize them to do it!

What is the
source of this entitlement? If it were being subsidized by the World Bank or
some UN Agency on behalf of a third world country, with high endemic
unemployment, some justification may be noted. But, NL is not the third world.

Indeed, the
minerals are in situ.  They are
here.  They must be exploited here
whether mining companies want to or not. That is our advantage.

What is in
our psychic that motivates us to want to give them away? Alderon makes the
boast, on its Web Site, an internal rate of return (IRR) of 40.2%.  The capital cost of the mine is estimated to
be amortized within a period of 2.5 years. Does this sound like an operation
that requires a subsidy from ordinary tax payers?

public policy questions demand debate.  Is
any subsidy justified and on what basis?

subsidies, when justified, have a finite term?

A lot of

If you ask
them loudly and often, and demand the answers, just possibly the rationale for
Muskrat Falls could change again.  
Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.


Bill left public life shortly after the signing of the Atlantic Accord and became a member of the Court of Appeal until his retirement in 2003. During his time on the court he was involved in a number of successful appeals which overturned wrongful convictions, for which he was recognized by Innocence Canada. Bill had a special place in his heart for the underdog.

Churchill Falls Explainer (Coles Notes version)

If CFLCo is required to maximize its profit, then CFLCo should sell its electricity to the highest bidder(s) on the most advantageous terms available.


This is the most important set of negotiations we have engaged in since the Atlantic Accord and Hibernia. Despite being a small jurisdiction we proved to be smart and nimble enough to negotiate good deals on both. They have stood the test of time and have resulted in billions of dollars in royalties and created an industry which represents over a quarter of our economy. Will we prove to be smart and nimble enough to do the same with the Upper Churchill?