Misery loves company. And so it was that taxpayers in Manitoba and British Columbia found themselves commiserating last week with the release of separate reports detailing the mismanagement and dissimulation that has left them to foot the bill for uneconomic hydroelectric projects championed by provincial monopolies with dreams of empire.
The reports on Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask dam and B.C. Hydro’s Site C generating station were eerily similar in how they enumerated the factors that led to massive cost overruns on both projects, beginning with complacent politicians and a lack of independent oversight at the government-owned utilities that had promoted them. The reports also read much like the findings of an earlier inquiry into the financially ruinous Muskrat Falls project in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In all three cases, provincial premiers allowed their better judgment to be clouded by a desire to build personal legacies in the form of gigantic dams that they perhaps hoped might one day be named after them. They allowed the heads of their respective Crown-owned electrical monopolies to indulge their own empire-building instincts to pursue those projects based on rosy assumptions concocted to dazzle unsuspecting taxpayers and avoid scrutiny.
Politicians of all stripes fell into this trap. In Manitoba, it was former New Democratic premier Gary Doer’s government that authorized construction of Keeyask dam and Bipole III transmission line, the costs of which have ballooned to $13.4-billion from an initial estimate of $9.7-billion, and led to a tripling of Manitoba Hydro’s debt in 15 years.
In 2008, Mr. Doer declared that “hydroelectricity is Manitoba’s oil,” suggesting his have-not province might get rich by exporting power to midwestern U.S. states hungry for clean energy. This was always a pipe dream, since continental electricity prices were already then beginning a steep descent because of a glut of cheap natural gas and the increasing attractiveness of alternative sources of renewable power. The oil-electricity analogy was also highly misleading. In 2019, for instance, Canada exported $87-billion worth of crude oil. Electricity exports totalled a mere $2.5-billion, mostly from Quebec.
As last week’s report from an independent review of Keeyask and Bipole III, led by former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, concluded: “The incomplete analysis of the projects, driven by government endorsement, a construction contract that deferred construction risk to Manitoba Hydro, and a lack of effective project oversight at the corporate level, led to project delays and significant cost overruns.”
As a former right-leaning premier of an oil-producing province, Mr. Wall may not have been the best choice to lead the review commissioned by Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister. But his exhaustive report, which runs more than 14,000 pages with appendices, should put to rest charges by Mr. Doer and others that this was just a partisan exercise.
In B.C., former provincial deputy finance minister Peter Milburn’s report on the Site C fiasco found a similar story of politicians rushing to sign off on a megaproject without due diligence. In this case, it was former Liberal premier Christy Clark’s government that gave the go-ahead to Site C in 2014, forgoing a prior independent review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.
Premier John Horgan’s New Democrats, which had opposed Site C in opposition, put in place a “project assurance board,” or PAB, that was supposed to keep tabs on B.C. Hydro. It also hired consultants Ernst & Young to provide an additional layer of oversight. But the PAB, Mr. Milburn found, was stacked with B.C. Hydro board members, while E&Y appears to have been systematically kept out of the loop by officials at the provincially owned utility.
“Ultimately, B.C. Hydro determined the amount and type of oversight they would receive from EY,” Mr. Milburn wrote. “This appears inconsistent with the concept of independent review and with B.C. Hydro’s commitment to government.”
Astonishingly, Mr. Horgan has chosen to make only cosmetic changes at B.C. Hydro in the wake of Mr. Milburn’s report and a jaw-dropping revision to Site C’s budget. The project is now slated to cost $16-billion, or almost twice the $8.7-billion it was estimated to cost in 2014, with no guarantee that further problems won’t still arise as B.C. Hydro seeks to reinforce Site C’s shaky – literally – foundations.
Mr. Doer and Ms. Clark may have thought they were following in the footsteps of the visionary premiers of the past – Manitoba’s Duff Roblin and B.C.’s W.A.C. Bennett – by developing their provinces’ hydroelectric potential. But those earlier mid-20th-century projects were pioneering feats that paid off because of their unbeatable natural attributes. Keeyask, Site C and Muskrat Falls were subpar in comparison.
That all three projects were allowed to proceed speaks to the rot within Canada’s Crown-owned electrical utilities. It is beyond high time someone cleaned house.
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