Pallister government sidesteps promise for independent review of Bipole III

A review of Manitoba Hydro's massive Bipole III transmission line will be done by the crown corporation's board, not the Public Utilities Board as promised by the Progressive Conservatives.

Bipole opponents say Brian Pallister going back on promise of independent review

Nearly all of the labour and material contracts required for Bipole III have been signed. (Manitoba Hydro)

A review of Manitoba Hydro's massive Bipole III transmission line will be done by the crown corporation's board, not the Public Utilities Board as promised by the Progressive Conservatives.

The $4.5 billion dollar project is nearly half complete. Manitoba Hydro says it is needed to add security and reliability to power transmission in the province and to increase capacity from northern hydro dams.

The huge transmission line project has had a stormy past with critics angered by the route chosen and the costs.

The PUB review was one of the Tories' promises in their "first 100 days of change for a better Manitoba," campaign in the recent election.

Manitoba's new Minister of Crown Services Ron Schuler says when the promise was made, the biggest concern was the cost of the transmission line, 

"The number one concern is the initial price was $1.2 billion. I think we are at $4.0 billion now, at at some point in time this line is going to hurt the rate payers of Manitoba Hydro," Schuler told CBC News.

Schuler says the coming Manitoba Hydro rate increase "is totally there to pay the cost overruns of Bipole III."

When asked if that met the promise, which specifically mentions the PUB, to review the project, Schuler said it did.

"Absolutely it meets the pledge that we are going to do a review. We understand there are a lot of things that are going to be happening. We are just about to head into construction season - this has to be happening sooner than later," Schuler said.

Project nearly half done

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Scott Powell says the Crown corporation has spent $1.8 billion of its budget on the hydro line project. The 1,384 kilometre right-of-way for the lines and towers has been cleared. All of the land has been acquired — 90 per cent through voluntary easements and the rest through expropriation.

Powell says 60 per cent of the anchors for the transmission towers are in place and 90 per cent of the labour and material contracts for the work have been signed. Work has begun on the conversion stations required for the transmission of power from the north.

"At this stage we continue moving ahead and do our jobs in terms of maintaining reliability; getting that line up so we can maintain reliability for our customers," Powell said. "It's good for Manitobans, good for Manitoba Hydro, and protects our electrical supply well into the future," he said.

Political interference is over

Schuler says Premier Brian Pallister made it clear there would no political micro-managing of Crowns such as Hydro or Liquor and Lotteries.

"It is political operatives here at the Legislature that got us into the mess with Bipole III and it is not political operatives in this building that are going to get us out of that mess," Schuler quoted the Tory leader as saying. 

Schuler said any review of the transmission lines, no matter how far along the project is, will be in the hands of the Hydro board.

"We are going to leave it up to the professionals for the first time. We are going to allow the professionals to give us their advice, Schuler said.

Coalition surprised, disappointed with decision

The group that has been lobbying for the last six years against the new transmission line and the chosen route is not happy to hear that Hydro's own board will re-examine the project instead of the PUB.

Bipole III Coalition vice president Garland Laliberté said just after the election then Premier-designate Brian Pallister told rural newspapers on a conference call that Bipole III was one of the dumbest most poorly considered projects in the history of any government anywhere.

Laliberté says what the new government is doing now isn't what they promised just a few weeks ago.

"I took what was stated in the campaign as something we could count on and it looks to me like that's not what's unfolding," said Laliberté.

Laliberté said Hydro has a new board, recently appointed by the new Progressive Conservative government and is not in a position to do a proper review. That, he said, is best left to an independent organization such as the PUB.

Review will be done if ordered

Hydro's Scott Powell says the company remains committed to Bipole III and thinks it's good value for Manitobans, but says if a review is ordered, that's what will happen.

"We are committed, as we always are, to work with the government, our minister and our board. We have no problems working with them on a review," he said.

NDP Hydro critic Ted Marcelino called the PC promise of a review " a ruse" to allow the government to stop it and says there is something "wrong with [the government's] thinking."

"It's now too late for a review at all. Almost billion dollars has been spent or committed to the project," Marcelino said.