BRANDON -- Now Manitoba Hydro has admitted that a natural gas-fired electricity generating plant is a viable alternative to spending more than $11 billion on the proposed Conawapa generating station, will the Selinger government abandon its two-dam plan that will burden Manitobans with tens of billions of dollars in debt, dramatically increase hydro rates, cripple Manitoba's business competitiveness, and cause immense environmental and social harm?
Don't count on it.
For those who have not been following recent developments on the Hydro file, Manitoba's Public Utilities Board is studying whether the construction of the proposed Keeyask and Conawapa generating stations is necessary, and whether there are better alternatives to one or both of the projects.
During hearings last week, senior Hydro representatives presented an option that would involve constructing a 750-megawatt natural gas burning generating plant instead of Conawapa.
"From Manitoba Hydro's point of view, the overall conclusion is the 750 megawatt line with Keeyask/Gas, and the various sales are justified," Ed Wojczynski, who is responsible for Hydro's PUB submissions, told the PUB panel.
That position was repeated last Wednesday by Hydro president and CEO Scott Thomson, who confirmed that a decision to build a gas-fired facility will be determined by what makes the most economic sense.
"The Conawapa generating station will only get built if the business case remains sound," he said.
The possibility of Conawapa being replaced by a gas-fired plant seemed to have caught Team Selinger by surprise. They are now pushing hard to save Conawapa by emphasizing what they regard as the risks of using natural gas to produce electricity.
In response to questions from Opposition leader Brian Pallister last Thursday, the premier argued that "Hydro's preferred development plan... identifies new dams, Keeyask and Conawapa, new transmission and additional energy efficiency is the plan that will keep the rates lowest for Manitobans in the long term... All-gas is the least favourable."
That's impressive spin, but it would be more impressive if it was supported by facts.
It will cost more than $20 billion to implement the two-dam plan, and that will cause electricity rates to more than double over the next two decades. Gas-fired plants, on the other hand, cost approximately $1 billion each. Contrary to the premier's claim, two gas plants would result in far smaller rate hikes than under the Keeyask-Conawapa plan.
As to the assertion that gas rates are extremely volatile and could cause wild fluctuations in electricity rates, Hydro has avoided spikes in rates for its natural gas service through effective supply management and long-term purchase contracts. That expertise would also apply to gas purchased for gas-fired plants.
Beyond that, Selinger must know that a study recently conducted by his own government concluded that gas fields are present in Manitoba and "the organic content of the shale is sufficient to generate large quantities of natural gas." He must also know that a significant percentage of those natural gas deposits are found in land owned by the province.
Those facts create the possibility that Manitoba's gas-fired plants could eventually burn natural gas owned by Manitobans. Such a scenario could deliver a level of cost certainty capable of satisfying concerns about gas price fluctuations.
Other factors favouring gas-fired facilities include the fact they can be constructed faster, they require far shorter transmission lines (meaning reduced "line loss" of electrical current and lower maintenance costs), which are far less vulnerable to weather conditions such as high winds, ice storms and drought.
They would also be an important alternate source of electricity if transmission lines from the north were damaged, particularly during the winter.
With so much evidence favouring gas-fired production, and Manitoba Hydro's willingness to consider the option as an alternative to Conawapa, why wouldn't our NDP government embrace a more affordable alternative? Because doing so would come with a huge political price.
We are well past the point where politics can be separated from power production in this province. With more than $1 billion already sunk into its two-dam plan, a course change in favour of gas-fired electrical production would be more than humiliating for Team Selinger.
It would be political suicide -- and that's why it won't happen.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.