Craig Leonard dismisses calls for NB Power public review

Energy Minister Craig Leonard says he is not convinced an independent assessment of NB Power's handling of three major power outages over the past year is necessary.

Liberals, Greens also call for independent review of NB Power after widespread power outages

Energy Minister Craig Leonard appeared with Gaetan Thomas, the president and chief executive officer of NB Power, during the clean-up efforts of post-tropical storm Arthur. Leonard said he doesn't think NB Power needs to undergo an independent review of its handling of recent blackouts. (CBC)

Energy Minister Craig Leonard says he is not convinced an independent assessment of NB Power's handling of three major power outages over the past year is necessary.

Leonard's comments come even though the utility has already had to backtrack on early assertions it did not reduce spending on tree trimming along power lines in the years before the blackouts.

"Yeah, there's no question that tree trimming budgets had been decreased," Leonard told CBC News, a point NB Power disputed last winter.

Still he said he's satisfied the issue was a non-factor in why damage to the electrical grid from post-tropical storm Arthur was so extensive.

"We just had an event where 100-year-old trees were dropping directly on power lines and no matter what decisions were made in the past was not going to mitigate what we saw with Arthur," he said  

Customers of NB Power have endured three major blackout events following storms over the last seven months.  A series of ice storms over Christmas knocked out power to 88,000, and was followed by another ice storm in late March that affected 80,000 more.

NB Power has already said it plans to increase its tree-trimming budget next year. (CBC)
The latest blackouts, caused by post-tropical storm Arthur on July 5, affected a record 200,000 NB Power customers, several thousand of who went without electricity for a week or more

Questions about reduced tree trimming along power lines began almost immediately during the first storms but NB Power denied it had made any cuts in the service.

"I just want to assure New Brunswickers that we've had a substantial tree trimming program throughout the last few years. There's been no decrease," said NB Power spokesman Brent Staeben when asked about the issue last December.

However, NB Power now acknowledges cuts were made "about a decade ago" but has not said how deep they were or how long they lasted. And although the utility hasn't blamed any of the power outages on that decrease, it has identified increased tree trimming as a key solution to prevent future outages and reversed the cuts.

Getting to the bottom of the tree trimming issue is one of the reasons several parties are suggesting a review of the recent outages should be conducted publicly by the Energy and Utilities Board and not internally by NB Power.

'Really appropriate' to review NB Power

On Tuesday, New Brunswick's Liberal and Green parties both endorsed the idea of an EUB review which already has the backing of NB Power's former chief regulator David Nelson and two former public interveners, who appeared at several NB Power hearings, Peter Hyslop and Daniel Theriault.

Green Party Leader David Coon said he believes an independent review of NB Power's handling of the recent power outages would be appropriate. (CBC)
"A lot of people have been impacted not just by the ice storm but this recent storm and I think they'd like to have a little better understanding of what direction the utility will be taking in the future," said Charlotte-The Isles Liberal MLA Rick Doucet in backing an EUB review. 

Green Party Leader David Coon said he believes the storms are just a taste of what's coming with climate change.

"It's really, really appropriate to take a step back and have the EUB look at the big picture," said Coon

But Leonard said he's convinced NB Power can generate a review of the outages, including of its own performance, equal to anything the EUB might produce and do it faster and cheaper,  

"We think what we're going to get from the utility is going to be what...the EUB would come forward with anyway  We're going to allow the utility to do it internally to make sure we can get it done as quickly as possible," said Leonard.

However, Leonard got some backing from the NDP on Tuesday. 

Brian Duplessis, a NDP candidate in Fredericton and a former vice-president of NB Power, said the party views recent storms as a much larger issue than outage problems facing the utility.

He said the party is more interested in seeing a climate change summit convened  next spring than quibbling over who should review NB Power's handling of the blackouts.

"The question of what has happened in the aftermath of Arthur is much beyond NB Power," said Duplessis.

About the Author

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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