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New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham said discussions with Hydro-Québec are at a critical stage over a memorandum of understanding that could involve the sale of NB Power. ((CBC))

Premier Shawn Graham says talks are at a "critical point" over a memorandum of understanding with Quebec that could lower provincial power rates and pay down NB Power's massive debt. 

Speaking outside a Tuesday morning caucus meeting, Graham said that no final details have been worked out on the possible deal with Quebec.

The premier would not say whether it would involve the sale of NB Power.

However, Graham said a memorandum of understanding is now being worked out that will address several key concerns raised by the New Brunswick government.

"We want to provide lower rates for New Brunswickers for their electricity costs than can be provided under the current structure of NB Power," Graham said.

"We also know that a debt of over $4 billion that has never been paid down by previous governments, our government is looking at ways to deal with the challenging and crippling debt load."

Graham said any potential deal involving NB Power and Hydro-Québec would have to promote the province's energy hub concept and help small- and medium-sized businesses create jobs.

The premier said the two provinces have been discussing options for greater energy co-operation since July.

Opposition urges recall of legislature

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Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward outlined his minimum demands for any potential sale of NB Power to Hydro-Québec. ((CBC))

New Brunswick Opposition leader David Alward is demanding the legislative assembly be recalled immediately for a debate over the rumoured potential sale of NB Power to Hydro-Québec.

Alward used a news conference Monday to set out a list of demands that he wants met if NB Power is to be sold.

Alward is seeking assurances that any deal would mean residential customers get just as much rate relief as large industrial power users and that NB Power jobs are protected.

As well, the opposition leader said if the province sells its transmission and generation systems, it should not be left with any financial liabilities such as pension costs or stranded assets associated with existing power plants.

But the Progressive Conservative leader wouldn't say if he'd cancel a signed contract that doesn't meet those conditions if he becomes premier next October.

"Can you just tear up deals, contracts? That's a question that would have to be asked later, down the road," Alward said.

In addition to his demands, Alward said he wants the legislature immediately recalled to debate the future of NB Power and have a special committee of MLAs struck to study the possible sale.

Full debate

On Monday, Energy Minister Jack Keir still would not confirm that the New Brunswick government is talking about selling NB Power to the Quebec utility.

But Keir said if it happens, it will be fully debated so people are assured it's a good deal.

"I absolutely understand the fear of the unknown here. What I'm asking everybody to do is take a deep breath. Let's wait and see if there even is a deal," Keir said.

"And if there is a deal at the end of the day, it'll be rolled out, it'll be transparent, and it'll be the most important debate we have in the history of New Brunswick in the legislature."

The New Brunswick and Quebec governments began discussing energy partnerships earlier in the summer.

Keir and New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham have long complained about the current structure of NB Power, which was designed by the former Progressive Conservative government, and both politicians have promised to reform it.

However, the Liberals campaigned in 2003 and 2006 against selling the public utility.

Williams weighs in

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams is continuing his vocal opposition to any deal between the New Brunswick and Quebec power utilities.

He said Hydro-Québec might freeze power rates in New Brunswick but eventually it would have to pay off NB Power's debt of nearly $5 billion.

"There may be some short-term relief, but in the long term they're going to get that back and that's going to come on the backs of New Brunswickers," Williams said.

Williams said it is up to voters in New Brunswick to say if Graham is breaking a previous election promise to keep NB Power public.