THE MUSKRAT FALLS HOUSE OF CARDS – POSTPONING THE DAY OF RECKONING

Guest Post by Ron Penney

I, and some of my fellow naysayers, have been trying to understand
the latest scheme for rate mitigation, announced just before the calling of the
federal election.

There
was very little information given out when it was announced but we have gotten
our hands on the technical briefing given to the press at the announcement and
a senior official has kindly agreed to meet with some of us on two occasions to
discuss the plan, to answer some of our questions and to take other questions
under advisement. 

In addition, the agreement in principle on
the financing components of the deal together with an exchange of letters on
the Hibernia revenues between the Premier and the Deputy Prime Minister are on
the website of Intergovernmental Affairs.
 

There is no agreement in principle on the
Hibernia revenues and I was advised it will require an Act of Parliament to
implement that part of the arrangement.
 

This is a complex proposal, and it is
important to understand that it is only a proposal, not a final agreement. It
is an election promise, nothing more, and it’s objective is to have a clean
sweep for the Liberals in Newfoundland and Labrador as they attempt to get a
majority government. Every seat is critical as the polls tighten in the first
few weeks of the campaign. St. John’s East is the target as we can see from the
visit to the riding last week by the Prime Minister.
 

To be fair to the Liberals, neither the
Conservatives nor the NDP have given us any concrete promises as to what they
would do for us on rate mitigation but I note the Conservatives were prodded by
the media on Friday to say they would support the proposal.
 

The reason is that it is very difficult
politically for any federal government to assist us in resolving a problem
which we created, albeit aided and abetted by a previous federal Conservative
government through an ill-advised loan guarantee, subsequently increased by a
federal Liberal government.
 

I, and a number of others, wrote the
federal Minister of Finance at the time, the late Jim Flaherty, and asked him
to insist that there be a full and unfettered review of the project by the PUB
before the loan guarantee was finalized. We were ignored.
 

Anything that the federal government does
for us will be watched closely by the other provinces. As we have seen, even
this modest proposal has attracted adverse editorial comment from the Globe.
The loan guarantee and its increase received strong criticism from the government
of Quebec at the time.
 

The key weapon in our arsenal is the
federal loan guarantee because if the ratepayers can’t pay the loans the
federal government is on the hook. And we can’t afford to pay.
 

So we will see a series of short term
fixes every few years in an attempt to forestall our
inevitable  inability to pay the loans and the calling of the federal
loan guarantees. The federal government will do all it can to prevent that from
happening. The last thing they want is to have to take over the project but
that is unavoidable.
 

The latest proposal is the first of many
short term measures tied to federal and provincial election cycles and once we
understand that, we can start to understand the enormity of the problem,
compounded by our unsustainable fiscal situation, which will also likely remain
unaddressed until the day of reckoning, when our debt rating collapses and our
borrowings become junk bonds.
 

This isn’t the first time that a rate
mitigation plan has been announced and this latest proposal won’t be the last.
 

The target rate was originally 13.5 cents
per kilowatt hour. The latest target rate is 14.7 cents.
 

Keep in the back of your mind the figure
of $66 million, which is what is required to reduce our rates by one cent.
 

The objective of this proposal is to
reduce rates from 23.1 cents to 14.7 cents and purports to be worth $5.2
billion. As I will explain later on this isn’t accurate.
 

The way this was laid out through
strategic leaks to the media in advance of the formal announcement has led many
to think that the federal government is giving us a grant of $5.2 billion
towards the project.
 

In fact the proposal consists partly of $2
billion dollars in federal financing, a $1 billion “investment” in the Labrador
to Island transmission link and a federal loan guarantee of $1 billion for the
Muskrat Falls and Labrador transmission assets. The “investment” is in the form
of what are called preferred shares which must be paid back. It is a loan not
an investment.
 

And the loan guarantee allows us to borrow
another billion dollars so as to avoid paying our debts in the early years of
the project. For those of us who have mortgages it’s like borrowing to meet our
mortgage payments. We all know that can’t end well. In the case of Muskrat
Falls we are just increasing the amount we have to pay back through our
electricity bills in the future.
 

As to the profits from Hibernia, we first
of all don’t even have an agreement in principle, just an exchange of letters.
The amounts aren’t guaranteed as they depend on how well Hibernia does in its
remaining years and, as I have pointed out, it requires an Act of Parliament to
make it a reality.
 

And because the estimated $3.2 billion
dollars will be paid out over many years I’m told by my economist friends that
the present value of that amount is approximately $1.3 billion dollars.
 

It’s still a large amount of money and is estimated to
provide almost three cents of relief in the first year, $191 million, should it
become a reality. But that will reduce to $123 million a year to 2047, worth
two cents annually thereafter
.
 

Assuming for the moment that these
measures achieve the new target rate of 14.7 cents, which others cast doubt on,
we have to remember that this represents a very large 10% increase in
electricity rates which will then increase by a minimum of 2.25% a year for the
foreseeable future.
 

We’ve had very stable rates for the last
decade, so this will come as a big shock to consumers.
 

Government and Nalcor believe in the
boiling the frog allegory, which is the urban myth that if you put a frog in
tepid water and slowly bring the water to boil the frog won’t jump out and will
boil to death. The idea of Muskrat Falls from the beginning is that we will
accept small increases every year and won’t abandon electricity.
 

Demand for electricity is stagnant at best
at current rates, and will likely decline as consumers switch to other sources
of heat such as heat pumps and increase conservation. (I’ve done both and have
converted my wood fireplace to propane.) As usage declines, prices will have to
increase even more to compensate. And one of our major industrial users, the
Come by Chance oil refinery is facing a very uncertain future. Electricity
consumption will be in a death spiral as homeowners abandon electric baseboard
heating.
 

And those rates don’t account for the
costs of taking measures to ensure reliability on the Avalon Peninsula such as
a retrofit of Holyrood or the acquisition of gas turbines, costing upwards of
$1 billion, and any increases sought by Hydro and Newfoundland Power for their
normal capital costs and increased operational costs over the years.
 

If that doesn’t happen I suggest you
follow my lead and get a standby generator!
 

The recent application to the PUB to set
up various creative accounting measures to soften the blow, which in the words
of the application with respect to some of the measures proposed, deviates from
“international financial reporting standards”, is further cause for concern.
 

This adds to the already creative
accounting for this project contrary to the normal public utility rules,
shifting the costs of the project to future generations. Assuming that the
starting rate will be 14.7 cents, by 2041 our rates will be a minimum of 20
cents, at the same time that power will available from the Upper Churchill at 2
cents per kilowatt hour, demonstrating once again what a folly the Muskrat
Falls project has been. I’m hoping to be around when the Upper Churchill
contract comes to an end to see what happens. A very spry 94 year old!
 

Moreover the proposal maintains the
illusion that there will be a rate of return for the province’s $5 billion
“investment” in the project, all of it borrowed, allowing the province to
pretend that it  isn’t part of the net debt of the province.
 

This is all a financial house of cards
which will eventually come crashing down, with terrible consequences for the
province. The day of reckoning is coming, but just not yet.
.

OPINION POLL OVER-RATES INEFFECTIVE TORY OPPOSITION

Having survived in spite of themselves, in Opposition the Tories have been lazy and uninspiring.  The fact that it is summer, and the House of Assembly is closed, admittedly makes their job tougher, except that the Party’s manifest weakness is not a seasonal problem.

REMEMBERING CABOT MARTIN (1944-2022)

He was an exceptional person. A gifted intellect for sure; irascible and argumentative, too. What endeared him to many was not just that he was analytical and insightful, but that he was honest and forthright. He was a public policy wonk; resource policy interested him most. He loved to travel and read; people, with something to say, were always important.

GNL RUSHING INTO ANOTHER “SCHEME”: CABOT MARTIN

I must say that after the Muskrat Falls fiasco, I thought our government had finally learnt its lesson and would not to rush into another such scheme where calling it “green” was enough to suspend all critical analysis.