Nfld. & Labrador

'Lack of concrete answers' in Muskrat Falls announcement concerning for opposition

An announcement from the federal and provincial government on Thursday was light on concrete measures and doesn't do enough to assure taxpayers they won't be on the hook for the billions of dollars the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project is going to cost, say the opposition parties.

'It's just another attempt to kick the can further down the road,' says NDP Leader Alison Coffin

Conception Bay South MHA Barry Petten says he was hoping for more concrete information in Thursday's announcement, and suspects people of the province are disappointed at the lack of detail. (CBC)

Thursday's Muskrat Falls announcement by the federal and provincial government was light on concrete measures and doesn't do enough to assure taxpayers they won't be on the hook for the billions of dollars  the hydroelectric project is going to cost, say the opposition.

Premier Andrew Furey and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that $844 million in payments, most of which were due by the end of December, have been deferred, while a federal negotiator has been hired to start talks on restructuring the finances of the project.

The premier also said he expects an agreement of the restructuring of Muskrat Falls finances — which would directly affect power rates — will be drafted and signed in the spring of 2021 and enacted in the fall, before the project is commissioned.

They just bought time, so I think that's cold comfort to a lot of people in the province.- PC MHA Barry Petten

But Progressive Conservative MHA Barry Petten says the announcement didn't have any tangible or practical information for taxpayers about what they should expect to see on their bills next year, when Muskrat Falls is expected to be up and running. It's long been a concern that the costs of Muskrat Falls would mean a potential doubling of hydro rates.

"Rate mitigation's been a big issue, so I guess a lack of concrete answers, concrete measures, I think that's the first thing that jumped out to me when I was listening to the announcement," Petten said Thursday afternoon.

"And I think that a lot of people … feel the same way."

Petten said an agreed-upon deferral of payments will free up some financing for the province's immediate financial situation, but it just means the issue is "being pushed down the road." He added that this week's announcement mirrors one made in February by federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan and then premier Dwight Ball.

"They just bought time, so I think that's cold comfort to a lot of people in the province, because I know for a fact from knocking on doors in the recent byelection that that's a big issue," Petten said.

"I'm a taxpayer too like everyone else, and I was kind of disappointed. I expected today was going to be an 'announcement' and all we really got today was we bought more time, which is a bit unfortunate."

NDP Leader Alison Coffin also said she found the announcement underwhelming, adding it didn't provide any concrete guarantees for people of the province.

"I was rather disappointed by it. It's just another attempt to kick the can further down the road. We didn't get anything by way of financial contributions; all we got was a deferral of payments for another year or so, and that doesn't solve any of our problems," Coffin said.

"It gives us an immediate reprieve, but it doesn't get us rate mitigation, it doesn't get that financial restructuring done, it gives me no more confidence that we are going to be on sound fiscal or financial footing for the coming years."

NDP Leader Alison Coffin says the announcement this week just pushes the problem of Muskrat Falls further down the road. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The $844 million will have to be paid eventually, Coffin said, and a deferral will mean that amount accrues more interest that the province will have to pay later.

With the prospect of higher hydro rates, paired with results of the Canada's Food Price Report 2021 released earlier this month, Coffin said people in the province are understandably worried about the province's affordability.

"If food prices are going up and your electricity prices are going up, it's going to make it awful hard to live anywhere in Newfoundland and Labrador," she said, "and that causes me huge concerns."

Was hoping for 'hard milestones'

It was also announced that Serge Dupont would be Ottawa's senior executive advisor working on negotiations for finance on the Atlantic Loop. He will be in talks with Brendan Paddick, who was appointed as the provincial negotiator in September.

Coffin she's concerned about some of the directives Dupont's been given.

"It certainly sounds like he's going to start negotiating equity stakes in Newfoundland projects, and that to me is very concerning as well because that means the federal government is going to have a hand in our financial future, and that can be a little bit difficult because are no longer masters of our own domain."

Petten also said he's worried about the negotiation process, and what it could mean if the two teams are unable to come to an agreement.

The powerhouse on the Muskrat Falls project site, including the spillway and the project's north dam is pictured in this aerial photo from February. (Nalcor Energy)

"What if … after this negotiation's done we're not satisfied, so we're six months out?" Petten said.

"We bought time, but we could be back to where we're to now, or where we were to a year ago, so this is only about starting another negotiation and I think that's not what we wanna hear. Again, we need concrete measures."

Coffin added that she would like to see immediate action taken in negotiations, but doesn't imagine it will be underway quickly, given the minority Liberal governments for Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador, Ottawa's deadline for a federal budget, and rumours of an impending provincial election.

"It makes me wonder how much we're actually going to see happen over the next little while," she said. "I'd feel much more confident if I had a timeline set out, some really hard milestones that we would have to adhere to."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn


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