Former premier left questions unanswered
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/03/2021 (689 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NOT surprisingly, in “Hydro projects built for the future” (March 1), former premier Gary Doer fails to acknowledge that the future he’s describing will have to be carefully navigated under the debt burden left by Manitoba Hydro’s expansion — an expansion conceived under his leadership and delivered by his successors.
Doer highlights the thinking within his government (1999-2009) and fills in on information not provided by former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall’s recently released report on the expansion. The detail is valuable, but the message raises more questions than it answers.
The Hydro expansion was conceived in the early part of Doer’s term, in a period when year-over-year electric energy consumption was growing in Manitoba by three or four per cent — growth rates unheard of in recent times. Export markets were attractive, especially for renewable hydroelectric energy.
But Doer’s government and Hydro failed to adjust the expansion plan when, in later years but still within the planning stage, domestic use began to flatten out and fracking had begun to decimate the export market. They also failed to adjust when it was becoming clear there would be price competition from two other renewables, wind and solar, both of which were beginning to challenge cheap natural gas.
As late as 2014, Hydro was still promoting Conawapa as the next northern generation merchant plant. Mercifully, considering what has happened in the global market, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) dropped Conawapa from the plan — but not until a total of $400 million had been spent or committed, all of it ahead of project authorization.
Doer implies that the disconnect between expansion and the market is a reflection of short-term thinking. But with the $5-billion cost of Bipole III transmission line having been absorbed only recently as an ongoing expense in the operating account, and with the projected $8.7-billion cost of Keeyask still not yet reflected, the other shoe is still to drop.
Electricity rates, still low by Canadian standards, will be doubly impacted when the current low-interest rates in the money market return to more normal values. We have given away our advantage.
Doer explains the decision to switch Bipole III away from the long-planned route on the east side of Lake Winnipeg in terms of the “morality” of the route, which he describes in terms of opposition from four east-side First Nations which, he correctly stated, had an alternate vision to obtain a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the area.
He makes no mention, however, that construction had already started on an east-side road, itself potentially several times more disruptive of the pristine nature of the area. One has to ask, if the concern was for the UNESCO designation, why was the road construction not halted?
Doer cites the uncertainty of the approval process for an east-side route as a reason for abandoning that plan. However, his concern about opposition from four First Nations did not hold water even at the time. Discussions between the Bipole III Coalition and east-side chiefs as late as 2011 revealed that if Hydro were to engage in meaningful consultation with the 16 east-side First Nations involved, resistance would end from all, except possibly Poplar River. The one-way communication Hydro was offering in the several meetings it claimed to have held in the area would not do.
The final reason Doer gives for abandoning an east-side route is concern about legislation tabled in Minnesota — advanced, he said, by a strong lobby that wished to promote its own local renewables. This “reason” is a red herring, in that if lobbyists in Minnesota succeeded in blocking import of Manitoba’s electricity, the choice of route for Bipole III would be irrelevant.
Doer avoids any mention of how he and his successor stacked the deck in favour of Hydro expansion to set up approval with little or no change in Hydro’s preferred development plan. Why does he avoid mentioning that the 2010 and 2011 review of Bipole III by the Manitoba Clean Environment Commission had been mandated earlier by his government to allow absolutely no consideration of an east-side routing? What was fair about that?
Why was Bipole III, a key component of the expansion, declared as “not in scope” in the Terms of Reference for PUB’s Needs For and Alternatives To review (accessible on page 261 of the 2014 final report at http://www.pubmanitoba.ca/v1/nfat/pdf/finalreport_pdp.pdf), yet chargeable as a cost for all plans advanced by Hydro, thus skewing the review against plans such as southern gas generation that did not require a north-south transmission line?
And why were the unauthorized expenditures on Keeyask and Conawapa, totalling $1.6 billion, allowed to be considered as “sunk expenditures,” to be applied to all plans considered in the review, further disadvantaging alternative expansion plans that did not require north-south transmission?
Garland Laliberte is a member of the Manitoba Energy Council, a former vice-president of the Bipole III Coalition and dean emeritus of engineering at the University of Manitoba.