of the Consumer Advocate (CA) plays a useful role protecting the public from unsupported
or excessive charges by our regulated utilities, Newfoundland Power and
advocate’s sole role one that is directed towards keeping our power bills lower
by a fractional percentage?
of an advocate as an ‘activist’, a persistent ‘promoter’ of his mission, an
ardent ‘defender’ of consumer interests; one who sees the big picture of change in the power industry, who is fearlessly determined not to let Government secrecy or bullying thwart him in the execution of his public duty.
the image or the record of the current Consumer Advocate, Tom Johnson.
No one has
challenged his competence in front of the PUB though the manner of his
appointment and whether he is conflicted has been raised.
senior public servants, David Vardy and Ron Penney, wrote the Minister of
Natural Resources recently seeking an alternative process of appointment.
expressed concern that “there is an inherent conflict of interest in having a
consumer advocate appointed by government…” when the outfit being investigated
is a Crown Corporation.
Blogger, Geoff Meeker, in a March, 2013 Post entitled “Consumer Advocate Endorses Muskrat Falls Project” also raised questions about the Advocate.
about the party affiliations of key players?
For example, consumer advocate Tom Johnson – who has endorsed Muskrat
Falls – was appointed by the PCs and practices law with Tom Williams, chief
fundraiser for the PC Party (and Danny’s brother).”
on the role of Consumer Advocate must be doubly vigilant, especially when the
appointment arrives courtesy of the Government, is of limited duration unlike
Judges, and is conducted without competition.
conflict is important; but one that is borne out of that question is whether Johnson
failed to act when major issues regarding security of supply, financial risk, power
cost and changes to the Muskrat Falls rationale became increasingly evident.
Order-in-Council OC2013-268 appointing Mr. Johnson for a one year fixed term
demands explanation. The Order reads:
of section 117 of the Public Utilities Act, the Lieutenant Governor in Council
is pleased to reappoint Mr. Thomas Johnson as Consumer Advocate for a one-year
term, effective August 12, 2013, to represent the interests of domestic and
general service consumers on terms acceptable to the Minister of Justice, in
addition to any other appointment the consumer advocate may receive to
participate in specific hearings before the Public Utilities Board. (emphasis
many familiar with his Office.
Traditionally, the CA is appointed on a case-by-case basis, usually when
Utilities seek approval for new rates that cover capital or operating costs. I don’t know if 2013 was the first full year appointment;
prior Orders-in-Council are not available on the Government’s Web Site.
make public the “terms” of his employment.
He needs to inform us how many hours per day he works for us and of the
limitations, if any, placed on his advocacy role. We need to know how much he and his Law Office
are paid under the Order-in-Council, and his additional remuneration, if any,
for his intervention into on-going PUB Hearings.
status of the Consumer Advocate (CA) matter?
reference to a Press Release from either the Government or the Consumer
Advocate’s Office informing the public that the CA is available all year
long to represent “the interests of domestic…consumers…” One ought to be available.
Advocate’s work in 2013, suggests the Advocate had plenty of time to speak with consumers and publicly raise
other pressing issues during the year.
2012 when many critics thought Johnson weak in his representations on the Muskrat
Johnson in March 2012: “I have concluded based on the evidence in the
review that the Muskrat Falls-Labrador Island Link represents the least cost option of the two alternatives examined”.
Johnson’s position, the PUB refused to endorse Muskrat Falls stating that
Nalcor’s evidence was preliminary and dated.
Decision, the Federal/Provincial Environmental Panel also refused to endorse
special insight did the Consumer Advocate possess? Weren’t the Joint Federal/Provincial Panel’s Decision
supported by the later PUB Decision a signal to Mr. Johnson to reconsider his
position? Shouldn’t he have entertained input from
members of the public?
possession of the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) which contains critical cost
information, per KWh, ratepayers will pay for Muskrat power.
not been made public.
about cost overruns but stated that good management practices should reduce the
possibility. He did not examine Nalcor’s
management competence and experience or the sheer size of the cost overruns
being met on projects in this Province and on virtually every major mega
project in North America.
virtually all matters Muskrat after Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy had rebuked him when he agreed with PUB Chairman Andy Wells that more time was needed to review Nalcor’s slow drip release of information on the Project.
Government’s key pieces of legislation was Bill 61. It stripped Johnson of any
role he might have had in challenging the Muskrat Falls power rate. Blogger Ed Hollett of the Sir Robert Bond Papers might have only slightly overstated the case when he noted that “…Tom is
now redundant”. Said he:
of Assembly…when it comes into effect the provincial cabinet will have the
power to direct the public utilities board – in effect – to set electricity
rates the way cabinet directs.”
that while Tom Johnson repeatedly fought the rate of return on capital employed
by Newfoundland Power, he was silent on Bill 61.
which Johnson was equally quiet even though an activist Consumer Advocate had
plenty of big issues over which to cause uproar.
two Hearings on the Maritime Link. Following
the first, it refused sanction of the Maritime Link stating the Nalcor/Emera
deal was deficient by up to $1.433 billion.
Agreement (EAA) was negotiated to satisfy the UARB, and commits to Nova Scotia more
than half of the equivalent power from Muskrat Falls.
Nalcor and a second open Hearing the UARB approved the Link.
in this Province, as to how that $1.433 billion figure was bridged and whether
the EAA might impact this Province’s ability to satisfy local demand? There was no such call, even though the Deal
was not part of Nalcor’s original Submission to the PUB.
the EAA had effectively joined the Nova Scotia power system with Newfoundland’s,
that the direct relationship with the Maritime Link and Muskrat Falls was obliterated,
that our Island power capacity was substantially committed, too, and that local
consumers were not consulted?
when Nalcor removed the request for approval of the Capital Budget for the transmission
upgrade from the Avalon to Central Newfoundland from the PUB agenda?
Consumer Advocate should feel obligated to bring to the public’s attention. He was employed on a full-time basis. His mandate to protect “…the interests of
domestic and general service consumers…” does not seem restrictive.
his head? Not until every member of the
public raised theirs, following the power black-outs in early January, 2014.
public hearing by the PUB in which Nalcor and Hydro officials could be
cross-examined under oath? No. He requested an “investigation”. The words “public hearing” are not found in
scope of the investigation should be as wide as possible? No.
Hydro International’s concern regarding the proposed inadequate standard of the
Labrador Island Link, in his 2011 Submission to the PUB.
that issue once again, now that the “black-outs” gave it a real life context
and in advance of the Labrador Island Link being constructed?
demanded review by the PUB, or at least went public, over the threat to the
Water Management Agreement as a consequence of the challenge by Hydro Quebec in
the Quebec Superior Court?
protest when Government announced that it would also conduct its own
“independent” hearing regarding the power “black-outs”?
“independence” of any such Inquiry is inherently compromised if Government
controls drafting of the “Terms of Reference” and the selection of the
Government ask a Justice of the Supreme Court to preside over the Panel and
oversee the selection of the other Members?
Advocate Johnson on those issues.
actions are not within the purview of the Consumer Advocate? Are they not reasonable and appropriate
initiatives of an Advocate?
Advocate would have led the charge not only for the purpose of challenging a
secretive and arrogant government, on behalf of consumers; he would have made
abundantly clear whose side he is on.
have escaped his attention. Efforts to
save a cent or two on our powers bills are welcomed but they do not compensate
for the profound nature of the issues he has ignored.
to regard this Consumer Advocate an activist, a promoter or an ardent defender
of the public interest.
made for the process that appointed him or whether questions of conflict are legitimate, our Advocate has a record of being timid.
In the current environment in Newfoundland and Labrador, silence and acquiescence from an important Office Holder as the Consumer Advocate, is simply unacceptable.