A Cautionary Note to EMERA On Muskrat Falls

If Emera
sanctions the Muskrat Falls (MF) Project, its ‘sweet heart’ $600 million deal on
the Labrador Island Link (LIL) will not just be plain sailing from here.  Yes, Bruce Huskilson, Emera’s President and
CEO, is likely mesmerized with phone calls from NL’s Minister of Natural
Resources Minister, Jerome Kennedy, demanding an immediate decision.  That is what politicians do.  Projects, like MF, are but ‘playthings’ for
governments. 


Huskilson should be
unavailable, for the next year or so, at least, until the NS UARB has rendered a
decision on the Maritime Link (ML).  Why?
Emera’s sanction of the LIL does not guarantee sanction of the ML.  The advantages which Emera’s skilful
negotiators won, against Nalcor’s bureaucrats, could be all for naught.

By the
standard of public utility companies, Emera is relatively small. A market cap
of just $4.2   billion is even smaller
than Fortis’ $6.45 billion. Investment Fund Managers from the Canada Pension
Plan to a plethora of ‘safe harbour’ investors are income dependent and rely
upon Emera’s risk-free dividend cheques and modest growth.  Emera wants to grow faster, through its LIL
and ML investments and by collecting fees, wheeling to third parties, anticipated
surplus MF power. Relative to Emera’s size, the LIL and ML projects are
outsized and far too risky.

Emera has
agreed to invest $600 million for ownership of 29% of the LIL.  In return, it is ‘guaranteed’ a 7% rate of
return, legislated by the Government of NL; Nalcor will pick up the cost
overruns.  On the surface, the deal seems
attractive and straight forward.

And, you may well ask, why worry, if Emera
has control over the ML decision? It can control the outcome.  Actually, that’s not quite right.  Nova Scotia’s UARB will determine whether the
ML is NS’s lowest cost option and it will prescribe a rate of return, which
will determine the ML’s viability.
UARB
hearings will not begin until mid-2013, plenty of time for a lot of changes to
occur; for cost overruns to appear on the Labrador parts of the Project if NL
proceeds alone, for the impact of the ‘shale gas’ revolution in the U.S. to
offer more proof that hydro mega projects are passé for now, for Hydro Quebec
to make Emera an offer that trumps the cost of MF power.  Afterall, HQ did confirm the declining value
of the U.S. market with its Vermont deal last year. And, HQ has surplus power. An
offer from HQ may represent the ‘lowest cost’ option; that is what the NS UARB is
mandated to decide. 

Is that
all?  Indeed, no. As attractive as a 7% return
might seem in a market in which Government Bonds offer less than 2%, what is the
problem?

First, the
Government of NL is not the right fit for a company like Emera; NL’s high risk
behaviour is incompatible with Emera’s low risk profile, as a utility.  Fortis Inc.’s Stan Marshall knew that, many months
ago.  Fortis is regarded as the ‘home
team’ in this Province. Yet, the company would not go near MF, as Nalcor’s
minority partner, with a barge pole.  Emera,
too, should have chosen better than Nalcor.

You probably
think I am going to go into a diatribe about Nalcor’s lack of expertise to do
MF (which would be true) or that I am going to cite the legal problems of SNC
Lavalin’s former senior executives (they have many), that we should be running
for the exits, rather than deal with a group constantly under threat from Quebec’s
‘Hammer Squad’. I’m not going to inform  Emera’s Board of Directors what it can read in
the paper.

How a
company deals with risk is often what makes them grow or destroys what they
have already built.  Emera’s “Opt In”
strategy is perfect for that Company. But, if it sanctions the Labrador Island
Link before a final decision is made on the ML, it will have voided the
advantage its negotiators won.

In addition,
Emera has Nalcor picking up 100% of cost overruns; it is a reflection of the
fact that Emera recognized such a risk from which it needed to shield the
company.  Emera knows that overruns
plague virtually every mega project and that MF will be no different.  What Emera is forgetting is that the NL
Government is in no position to sustain big cost overruns, either. 

Likely, the company’s
executives are not ignorant of the budgetary mess into which NL has gotten itself.
A deficit of $725 million, this year, and a worse forecast next year. The kitty,
in which it was saving part of the equity requirement for MF, is now getting
smaller and smaller.


NL’s current
high public debt combined with a ‘structural’ deficit means it will also have
to borrow its equity and borrow all cost overruns, too. Structural deficits, by
their nature, repeat themselves.  All this borrowing will cripple the
Government.  With the FLG, NL will find it
difficult to finish the Project; without the FLG, it will be impossible.


The
Government now notes that a third of budgeted revenues are sourced from
offshore oil; the real number is likely more than one-half, when personal
income taxes, HST and other correlated revenues are included. Hence, two black
swans, cost overruns and lower oil prices, represent, for NL, a ‘fiscal cliff’ that
should not be underestimated by anyone, including Emera.    

Chris Huskilson
should take a lesson from recent NL history. Successive governments of this
Province, spent years, and millions of dollars, attacking the Upper Churchill
Contract in the Law Courts.  A transmission line from Labrador to Quebec was the Contract’s saviour; that
physical link gave it “inter-provincial” status, removing it from the singular authority
of the NL Legislature. Without the ML, MF is not an “inter-provincial”
undertaking; the Supreme Court of Canada cannot determine a link where none
exists. Hence, MF, in these circumstances, will be ‘provincial’ and at the
mercy of the NL Legislature.  That is one
risk Emera’s bankers and its shareholders should not fail to appreciate.

As in
Greece, when a Government gets in trouble, a solution must be found. A future NL
government, beset with huge cost overruns on MF, will be forced, with a growing
public outcry, to reduce services, pare the public service and pays less to those
public servants that it keeps.  It will
look for creative ways to dig the Province out of a mess. If Emera thinks, for
one second, that its investment is safe, in such circumstances, Bruce
Huskilson is very naïve. To a government in trouble, Emera’s
7% will have the same status as other low hanging fruit.

Today, Emera’s
Board should be feeling pretty good about its “Opt In” position in the MF
Project.   It should not be hurried by
the NL Government, at least, not until the UARB has handed down a decision; by
then, some of the gaping holes in the FLG “Term Sheet” will have been filled
in, an analysis by a rating agency will be available,  the Independent Engineer will have had a look
at the multitude of “Conditions Precedent” to provisioning the FLG and by then,
too, it will have a sense of whether the federal bureaucrats have structured,
in the FLG, something unachievable, letting the Feds off the hook.

Viewed from here,
Emera’s courtship with Nalcor might have given birth to a ‘sweet-heart’ deal.  But, if the company forgets its risk-averse, dividend
loving shareholders, sanctioning the LIL now, will be the beginning of a very
unhappy marriage. 
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.

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