NB Power's handling of Storm Arthur needs public review, experts say

NB Power's preparation for and handling of a series of recent widespread blackouts in New Brunswick should be subject to an independent review by the Energy and Utilities Board, according to the utility’s former chief regulator and two former public interveners.

Post-tropical storm Arthur knocked out electricity to 200,000 NB Power customers

Two former public interveners and the former chairperson of the Public Utilities Board say NB Power's handling of recent blackouts, including those related to post-tropical storm Arthur, should be reviewed independently. (Daniel McHardie/CBC)

NB Power's preparation for and handling of a series of recent widespread blackouts in New Brunswick should be subject to an independent review by the Energy and Utilities Board,  according to the utility’s former chief regulator and two former public interveners.

"There has to be an openness and transparency," said David Nelson, a former chairperson of the Public Utilities Board, the EUB's predecessor.

"We tend to forget that NB Power is ultimately owned by the ratepayers and taxpayers of this province. And they should have a right to have an inkling of what's going on with that Crown corporation."

NB Power customers have endured three major blackout events following storms over the last seven months, two of which took more than a week to fully resolve.  

A series of ice storms over Christmas knocked out power to 88,000 and was followed by a second ice storm in late March that affected tens of thousands more.  

The latest blackouts, caused by post-tropical storm Arthur on July 5, affected a record 200,000 NB Power customers. Several thousand of those customers went without electricity for a week or more. 

In Nova Scotia, where post-tropical storm Arthur similarly knocked out power to 200,000 customers, many for days, Premier Stephen McNeil has ordered an independent review of Nova Scotia Power's preparations for and response to the storm by its regulator, the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board.

But in New Brunswick, the provincial government has said that kind of scrutiny is unnecessary and according to Energy Minister Craig Leonard NB Power will be conducting an "internal review" of the event instead.

Nelson says the public would benefit from a more open examination of all of the recent blackouts, a position supported by others.

Peter Hyslop, a Hartland lawyer, was appointed to represent the public at several utilities board hearings involving NB Power during the Bernard Lord government.

He says if there are any issues at NB Power that contributed to the length or severity of the Arthur outages, the EUB — and not NB Power — should be charged with looking at it.  

"I think right now the public would want to know more about whether NB Power is doing a good job in terms of their line maintenance," said Hyslop. 

"It may well be they're doing an excellent job and they should not be afraid to come forward and say that. However, it is one thing to have trust, it is another thing to have verification and the way you have that verification is to have a board or somebody independent look at it with people asking hard questions."

NB Power does blame fallen trees and tree limbs on its lines for much of the recent outages.

It also has acknowledged its tree trimming and line maintenance budgets were cut several years ago but hasn't said if that contributed in any way to the length or severity of any of the blackouts.

However, Gaëtan Thomas, the president and chief executive officer of NB Power, says those budgets are now being increased substantially to help prevent future damage.

Daniel Theriault, a Fredericton lawyer, replaced Hyslop as the public's representative at NB Power hearings during the Shawn Graham government.

He says he agrees with Hyslop and Nelson that an independent look at all of the events contributing to length and severity of Arthur outages should be undertaken.

But he says he thinks it should be expanded to include the other recent outages.

"If the government wants to, they can order an inquiry by the EUB into this - what happened at Christmas and now," said Theriault.

"You hear rumours all the time about this latest hurricane and whether the management of NB Power were properly organized for this and you know that's something they should be accountable for."

The utilities board review in Nova Scotia, which Nova Scotia Power says it welcomes, is already well underway.  

The utility has been given until mid-August to prepare a report on how it handled Arthur, which it will later be made to answer questions about and defend.

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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