The Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board's conditional approval of a $1.52-billion subsea cable designed to transport electricity from the Muskrat Falls project to Nova Scotia is being read differently by the province's political leaders.
Premier Darrell Dexter, who backs the project, sees the conditional approval as good news while his rivals claim the Utility and Review Board is rejecting the project as is.
"This project — as it is — has been denied unless they can meet the extra conditions. This is an actual outright denial of what the NDP government had been pushing for," said Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil.
"The NDP government had been saying this had been the lowest cost option for Nova Scotia and the board clearly said it's not the lowest cost option and that there's a better deal out there and we should have been negotiating for a better deal."
Emera Inc. — the parent company of electrical utility Nova Scotia Power — is a minority partner in the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project and is responsible for the Maritime Link, which may see as much as 40 per cent of the electricity from the 824-megawatt project moved to Cape Breton by subsea cables.
On Monday, the Utility and Review Board announced it had approved the Maritime Link deal with the condition that Newfoundland and Labrador's Crown-owned power company — Nalcor Energy — provide a written committment of guaranteed access to additional electricity to meet Nova Scotia's needs at market price.
Without that written guarantee, the Maritime Link project is not the lowest long-term cost alternative for ratepayers in Nova Scotia, the board said.
Dexter said Monday he still sees the decision as a green light.
"I think it's a green light and that the UARB has a done a full analysis," he said.
"They see the project as the lowest cost alternative for ratepayers. They certainly have given Emera some work they have to do, but I would see this as a step forward."
However, the president and CEO of Nalcor Energy wouldn't agree to put in writing an offer to sell its excess hydro from Muskrat Falls at market prices.
Ed Martin did not offer any firm commitment to renegotiate the deal with Emera Inc. and said the project is being developed first for the benefit of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Citizens' group calls decision 'small victory'
Meanwhile, the co-founder of a citizens' group called the Lower Power Rates Alliance Nova Scotia said it's pleased by the regulator's decision to approve the Maritime Link only if Emera Inc. can show it has reduced the risk to ratepayers.
"They proposed a structure that would see us pay for expensive energy and then they assumed there would be a whole bunch more at cheap prices. But they didn't have an agreement for the cheap stuff," said Todd McDonald.
"The board said, 'If you're going to assume that you're going to be able to buy this then you need to sign a contract for it.' If they do that and if we need it, it does remove substantial risk to the ratepayer and so we see that as a prudent and a smart decision."
The next step is for Nalcor Energy and Emera Inc. to meet and discuss whether the Newfoundland utility is willing to offer Nova Scotia additional imports at a cheaper price.
If they can't sign a contract or Emera Inc. can't to find another supplier, the Maritime Link won't be built unless the utilites pay for it.
McDonald said his group sees the Utility and Review Board decision as a small victory.
"We would like to have seen the UARB go one step further and deny the province their efforts to buy the really expensive energy," he said.
"That energy is so expensive that the rest of the continent and other places in North America are laughing at us."