Nfld. & Labrador

Former PUB chair Andy Wells says Stan Marshall, Peter Alteen could have stopped Muskrat Falls

The former head of Newfoundland and Labrador's utility regulator is blasting two high-profile energy executives for their early silence on the controversial hydroelectric project, saying their voices could have stopped it in its tracks.

Critic of the hydroelectric project says concerns raised by energy executives 'too little, too late'

Andy Wells, the former chair of Newfoundland and Labrador's Public Utilities Board, says two high-profile energy executives should have spoken out against Muskrat Falls years ago. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The former chair of Newfoundland and Labrador's public utilities regulator is blasting two high-profile energy executives for their early silence on Muskrat Falls, saying their intervention could have stopped the project in its tracks in 2011-12.

"They had an obligation, I submit, to protect their customers against unjustified increases in electricity rates, and they knew what was going on here," Andy Wells told CBC News on Tuesday.

Wells served as chairman of the Public Utilities Board from 2008 to 2017, and had a front row seat as the debate over the merits of the controversial hydroelectric project raged prior to its sanction nearly seven years ago.

As PUB chairman, he fought unsuccessfully for the board to have more time to carry out a review of the project, and believes input from Stan Marshall and Peter Alteen at that critical stage of the process could have had a major impact on the process.

"They knew then that Muskrat Falls was a boondoggle … and that was the time that they should have spoken out."

If the PUB had been given the mandate to carry out an exhaustive, wide-ranging review of Muskrat, Wells said, "there's no doubt in my mind the board would not have found Muskrat Falls … to be remotely viable."

Since he left the board two years ago, Wells has become one of the loudest critics of Muskrat Falls, and has fiercely attacked politicians who supported the project.

There was no appetite for a reasoned, objective examination of its merits, he said.

Critics faced uphill battle

In the lead-up to sanctioning, a small circle of critics opposed Muskrat, while a succession of Progressive Conservative governments charged ahead aggressively in favour of the project. Nalcor, the province's energy corporation, also argued Muskrat was the least-cost option for the province's future electricity needs.

The project was sanctioned at an all-in cost of $7.4 billion in late 2012, but the price tag has since ballooned to at least $12.7 billion.

Prior to assuming the top post at Nalcor Energy, Stan Marshall was president and CEO of Fortis Inc. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Marshall is the current CEO of Nalcor, and made headlines shortly after assuming the post in 2016 when he called the project a boondoggle.

But at the time Muskrat was sanctioned, Marshall was president and CEO of Fortis Inc., the St. John's-based utility company with international holdings.

It's well known that he quietly expressed misgivings about the project, but did not wade into the public debate during his time at Fortis.

Alteen is the president and CEO of Newfoundland Power, a subsidiary of Fortis that supplies more than 80 per cent of the homes and businesses in Newfoundland with electricity. He was a senior vice-president with the company when Muskrat was being debated.

Like Marshall, he was also absent from public discussions about the project.

Important inquiry witnesses

Marshall and Alteen were important witnesses at the Muskrat Falls public inquiry, which is investigating why the project is billions over budget, years behind schedule, and is threatening to send power rates into the stratosphere.

Both offered some harsh criticism of the project during testimony, with Marshall saying a Nalcor populated by utility experts would never have sanctioned Muskrat Falls, a reference to the strong presence of people with oil and gas pedigrees at the very top levels of Nalcor.

Marshall has also said publicly in recent years that Muskrat should never had been built, that it is much larger than the province's needs.

Peter Alteen, president and CEO of Newfoundland Power, has said the utility was shut out of the Muskrat Falls debate. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Alteen was also critical of the project during his appearance before the inquiry, especially as it relates to the reliability of transmitting electricity from Labrador to Newfoundland via the Labrador-Island Link, and plans to eventually dismantle the thermal generating station at Holyrood.

Alteen also complained during his testimony that Newfoundland Power was essentially shut out of the Muskrat debate.

But Wells calls their criticism "too little, too late."

"As far as I'm concerned, Marshall with Fortis, then, and Newfoundland Power were either cowards or they were intimidated into silence. And they badly let (us) down. It was just narrow, corporate self-interest," said Wells.

An official with Nalcor, meanwhile, said Marshall is out of the country, and the issues raised by Wells pre-dates his involvement with Nalcor.

CBC News requested an interview with Alteen, but Newfoundland Power responded with the following statement:

"From the time of its announcement in late 2010, detailed, complete and current information associated with the Muskrat Falls project has not been made publicly available. The project was specifically exempted from the oversight of the Public Utilities Board. In the absence of sufficiently detailed and complete information, it has been impossible for Newfoundland Power to reasonably evaluate the merits of the project."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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