Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Would a Nalcor by any other name smell just as, well, the same?

While the future of Newfoundland and Labrador's Crown energy corporation is up in the air, outgoing CEO Stan Marshall is asking people to care more about the talent running it than its name or structure. As John Gushue writes, Marshall's call for a rapid development of the massive Gull Island project is already sparking criticism.

Stan Marshall says the talent behind the scenes is far more important than a corporate name

Stan Marshall took questions from reporters on June 10 at his final news conference. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Juliet, Shakespeare's tragic teen, knew all about how a name can be toxic.

"Wherefore art thou Romeo?" Juliet says in the play named after the two star-crossed lovers. Many people think Juliet at that point is looking for Romeo, but she is actually wondering why, not where; that is, why Romeo has to be a Montague, the loathed family and nemesis to Juliet's Capulets.

"O, be some other name!" Juliet cries out in anguish. Then, in a line that has delighted wordsmiths for centuries, she says, "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

If anything has been in bad reputational odour in Newfoundland and Labrador lately, it's Nalcor.

The Crown energy corporation's very future and, yes, its name have become political points in recent months. Moya Greene and the premier's economic recovery team have recommended folding Nalcor and placing it under the control of its main subsidiary, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

Nalcor Energy, founded in the Danny Williams era as the umbrella of a variety of agencies to develop and market hydro, oil and other energies, has been politically toxic for years, at least since the Muskrat Falls megaproject went off the rails.

Marshall came out of retirement in 2016 to take over Nalcor, particularly to oversee construction of the overbudget Muskrat Falls megaproject. (Nalcor Energy)

The business of names — not to mention the issue of winning back public trust — came to mind when I watched Stan Marshall, Nalcor's outgoing CEO, make his final remarks just over a week ago. His parting comments were about what happens next, not just to Nalcor, but what Newfoundland and Labrador does with its hydroelectric assets and potential. He also spoke about risk, and what it will take to move forward with confidence,

'Names are not important'

On Tuesday, Marshall entered retirement … again. Marshall's first retirement came in late 2014 after running Fortis, the publicly traded parent of Newfoundland Power, for almost two decades. Marshall stepped once more unto the breach, to borrow another phrase from Shakespeare, in early 2016, at the behest of former premier Dwight Ball. Marshall's main task: fixing Muskrat Falls. Two months into the job, Marshall called it the way many saw it: Muskrat Falls was a boondoggle.

A few days before metaphorically packing up his desk, Marshall spoke with reporters, largely pressing the case for development of Gull Island, the long-sought project on the lower Churchill River that — if ever developed — would produce more than double the output of Muskrat Falls.

WATCH | Stan Marshall says talent is far more important than the name that replaces Nalcor:

Stan Marshall's exit interview: Overcoming the Muskrat Falls crisis, rebranding Nalcor and dealing with Quebec

4 months ago
Having come out of retirement to take over a troubled Nalcor Energy, Stan Marshall took reporters' questions at his last public appearance. 4:32

Marshall made it clear that the important thing is not what Nalcor is called, but rather which people are running the enterprise, and what qualifications they have.

"Names are not important," Marshall told CBC's Carolyn Stokes. "Corporate structures will change with changing circumstances.… So if you change a name, that's fine; change corporate structure, that's fine. But you had better get the expertise. The problem we've had in Newfoundland, we've gotten terrible advice on our hydroelectric things."

In Marshall's eyes, Nalcor and Hydro have in recent years been recruiting the talent to not only develop Gull Island, but steer N.L.'s interests through a number of tricky prospects, including the proposed Atlantic Loop that might involve the Lower Churchill, the Maritimes, the federal government and — trickiest of all — Quebec, which has had a rocky history, to say the least, with Newfoundland and Labrador thanks to the Upper Churchill contract.

"We need to have those skills here in Newfoundland if we're going to properly deal with the Upper Churchill, if we're going to properly deal with any kind of rate mitigation measures taken, if we're going to deal with Atlantic loops and developments of Gull Island, you're going to need that expertise," Marshall said.

"If you don't, you're going to end up the same place you've gotten in the past, and [with] disasters we've had in the past."

Is now the time for Gull Island?

While Marshall is keen on Gull Island — "now's the time to do it," he said — two of Nalcor's most vocal critics are pleading to not expedite development.

"We can't be an equity partner in the development of Gull Island. We just can't afford to take any more risk," said former deputy minister Ron Penney, who appeared on CBC Radio's CrossTalk on Thursday with fellow retired civil servant David Vardy.

David Vardy, left, and Ron Penney testified in 2018 at the Muskrat Falls inquiry. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

With Newfoundland and Labrador out of fiscal wiggle room — thanks in large part to the $13-billion burden that is Muskrat Falls — Gull Island is just not feasible, Vardy said.

"If we'd done this project 10, 12 years ago, it might have been very different. But in today's environment and with the projections we have for 2030, the prospects do not look very attractive."

Penney and Vardy pointed out a number of factors against a development, besides the fact the province is basically broke. For one, the economics of developing Gull Island have changed considerably in the years since it was last examined in a close way. Energy markets have changed, particularly in the United States, where the energy would have to be exported, and rates per kilowatt-hour are much lower than had been anticipated.

Private financing might be an option, but that puts Newfoundland and Labrador in a corner for negotiating equity and royalties.

And then there's Quebec, which is all too aware that 2041 — the year that the Upper Churchill contract, which enriches Hydro-Québec while turning over a pittance to the N.L. treasury — finally runs out.

Churchill Falls was the first hydroelectric project in Labrador involving the provincial government. The Muskrat Falls project is nearing completion, while the larger Lower Churchill project planned for Gull Island remains undeveloped. (CBC)

"It'll obviously have to be an export market and it'll have to go through Quebec," said Penney. "Like it or not, we're going to have to deal with Quebec and they're going to have to be a party to this project in some way, in order for it to be successfully transmitted."

Marshall also believes that negotiating with Quebec is necessary. Nor is he intimidated by Newfoundland and Labrador's history with Quebec.

"Get over it," he said.

"Don't worry about the mistakes you made in the past. The important thing is to have the right people. You don't want to repeat those mistakes, but you can't be going around saying, well, we made a mess of that.… If we don't have the confidence to develop our own resources to deal with that, we have to deal with our neighbours, our customers."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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