This Dam is Your Dam, This Dam is My Dam; Part 6 of 6: Batten Down the Hatches

Greg Hewlett closes out his 6-part series on Muskrat Falls, which "could’ve easily bloomed to 6 billion (heck, even 12.7 billion) parts."

“But above and beyond all else, I am most proud of our renewed pride as a people.” – Danny Williams, final speech as premier, 2010.

8 years into the decade he initiated so spectacularly with his legacy’s jewel, our renewed pride is re-wounded once more. Williams gave that last speech at what Newfoundland historian Jerry Bannister called “the high-water mark of Newfoundland nationalism.”

This, the political moment that bore the Lower Churchill Project, taken together with today’s own moment (sprouting from the seeds then planted), illustrate vividly Bannister’s vision of Newfoundland and Labrador as a people and province always on the cusp of either triumph or disaster.

While the triumph looks decidedly unfounded in hindsight, the disaster ahead is very real. Economically, if we are looking reality in the face (David Vardy estimates that interest and operating costs of Muskrat alone amount to about $78 billion in the next fifty years), a federal bailout of some kind may be unavoidable; particularly as our chronic demographic and geographic crises grow more acute over time.

If so, it follows that a most urgent task is to figure out how we as a province will approach negotiating the terms of the bailout to come. Whoever negotiates these terms will in effect be determining the future course of the province.

Someone who we can trust had better run before 2020, because when Muskrat Falls comes online, and sometime thereafter we exceed our fiscal capacity, the fight will be on against a bailout whose conditions will almost certainly be crushing austerity.

Who do we trust in government to take on this ultimate responsibility? If the answer is no one, well, someone who we can trust had better run before 2020, because when Muskrat Falls comes online, and sometime thereafter we exceed our fiscal capacity, the fight will be on against a bailout whose conditions will almost certainly be crushing austerity. From Greece to Puerto Rico, examples of such abound in recent history. How we avoid becoming another casualty of a punishing “structural adjustment” is the critical question from which all others follow and find their form.

With the Commission of Inquiry into Muskrat Falls, we’ve been provided a forum to scrutinize and understand the many mistakes and deceptions that helped land us in our present state. There can be no doubt that this is a good thing, and will bring what one hopes to be cathartic exposing of bad actors and their dealings; public bodies failing to act in the public interest.

But the Inquiry, which is to table its final report by the end of 2019, will not be making findings of criminal or civil responsibility, so perhaps expectations for catharsis should be tempered. Further, though a solid grasp of past errors is crucial to future planning, it is difficult not to feel that where the bulk of our resources and intelligence are direly needed is in the effort to strategize how best to weather the coming storm.

As the recent applications for rate increases by the public NL Hydro and the private NL Power suggest — and I pause here to echo the question of how much sense it makes right now for our public body to generate electricity only to sell it back to ourselves through a profit-driven middle man — weathering the storm is taking early shape in the need to keep our power companies in check.

We can take encouragement in our ability to do so from the recent successful demonstrations led by Keith Fillier, James Murphy and Lori Moore outside and at a hearing of the PUB, which alongside general public discontent, prompted NL Hydro to withdraw their ‘smoothing’ increase ahead of the impending big bump up in 2020.

I pause here to echo the question of how much sense it makes right now for our public body to generate electricity only to sell it back to ourselves through a profit-driven middle man

But as for Newfoundland Power (NP), Des Sullivan writes that “The Company wants the PUB to approve the 1.2% rate increase just to bolster its return on assets, though it is already receiving a juicy 9.5% return on equity. It justifies the additional return by arguing that its assets are at greater risk in a declining economy.”

This last point, their “justification,” illustrates so clearly the predatory, entitled position we can expect from large corporations and financial interests as our economic situation deteriorates. Imagine, if you possibly can, arguing that you are deserving of an even greater than your already great profit-margin on a service you monopolize and to which basically every citizen is obliged to pay for, simply because the economy is in decline. Yes, NL Power wants more money because everyone else will have less money.

This is the absurd and malicious logic of the corporate and financial worlds: they believe that the “risk” (as if they are the ones at risk) of operating in a declining economy entitles them to even more of the precious, vanishing dollars still in circulation.

Imagine, if you possibly can, arguing that you are deserving of an even greater than your already great profit-margin on a service you monopolize and to which basically every citizen is obliged to pay for, simply because the economy is in decline.

This brings us to a related concern of how we should or should not deal with our crippling debt; given its severity, especially in today’s still-rampant business climate of free market fundamentalism, murmurings of privatization of parts or all of the Lower Churchill Project are inevitable.

Apart from the general critique of public-private partnerships — that all too often the public gets the risk while the private gets the profit (and as multimillionaire Ed Martin could tell us, even a Crown Corp suffices for this equation)— the most serious objection is clear: no matter how much of the Project we could hypothetically sell off, how much of the debt would we still be saddled with while simultaneously losing any future potential of the benefit of our own resources? In a stroke of debilitating irony, the ghost of Upper Churchill flows downstream to haunt the Lower.

Well, there’s no question the 6 parts of this series could’ve easily bloomed to 6 billion (heck, even 12.7 billion). As is, there’s so much to be left untouched and unsaid. Chalk it up to the infinite plumage on an albatross.

But in closing, it’s worth pointing out that in a world totally overwhelming in causes and catastrophes to agonize over and attempt to alleviate, 200 researches from across Canada and beyond have organized to write the federal government demanding that the outstanding dangers of Muskrat Falls be addressed immediately. Let it be yet another sign of what’s at stake here, that this many well-informed people from this many places are deeply concerned enough to have done so. From the almost unbelievably precarious North Spur, to silence from government as to whether they will knowingly contaminate the Churchill River, to the massive economic insecurity to come: lives are at stake.

And most threatened of all are Labradorians, Indigenous and settler both. Let us Islanders with our big ideas and godforsaken hydro dams keep this close to mind, and closer to heart, in the lean years ahead.

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