NB Power jobs on the line

Lisa Hrabluk
The Telegraph Journal
November 18, 1998

FREDERICTON – Jobs losses are imminent whether New Brunswick overhauls NB Power or not – it is just a question of who will be left unemployed.

That was the sobering message the Select Committee on Energy received yesterday during the first day of public hearings into the fate of the province’s electricity sector.

On the one side stand the 2,500 employees of NB Power and the uncertain future that awaits them if the government elects to follow the lead of some border states and sell all or some of NB Power’s generators to private interests.

On the other side are the thousands of people who earn their keep in New Brunswick’s resource-based industries in mills and factories that need to keep their energy costs down in order to stay competitive on the world market.

If NB Power reorganizes or sells some of its generators layoffs are sure to follow, presenters at the hearings said yesterday. However, they added, if NB Power does not change, resource-based industries may transfer operations out of the province in favour of cheaper energy sources south of the border, leaving a trail of unemployed workers in their wake.

No one is more aware of the government’s predicament than Donald Gould, the mayor of Minto, the village in the heart of New Brunswick that is home to NB Coal.

A wholly-owned subsidiary of NB Power, NB Coal is the largest employer in Minto, having provided 300,000 tonnes of coal annually to NB Power for years.

However the partnership appears to be over.

NB Power plans to decommission the Grand Lake generating unit in 2004, a move that will leave almost all of the 90 miners and 50 Grand Lake power plant workers unemployed, Mr. Gould said.

Mr. Gould wants to prevent that and yesterday he asked the committee to rethink NB Coal’s uncertain future.

“Nothing less than a guaranteed future of the presence of a power plant and the continued operation of our coal fields to serve this plant long into the future are acceptable,” he said.

If for no other reason, Mr. Gould believes New Brunswickers owe NB Coal a new lease on life because of the millions of dollars the company saved ratepayers in the 1970s and 1980s.

“During the oil crisis of the 70s our units rattled at full capacity and it has been estimated that we produced nearly $270-million in electricial generation savings relative to the cost of oil to produce an equal amount of electricity,” said Mr. Gould.

Speaking after his presentation, the mayor was more blunt.

“The government shouldn’t forget about us.”

But past performance shouldn’t be the bellweather for deciding NB Power’s future, says Paul Bradley, CIBC Wood Gundy’s director of global power and utilities.

Competition in electricity markets is coming to neighbouring states and if NB Power wants to participate in those markets, the government will have to open New Brunswick to competition.

In order to do that NB Power will have to be restructured, a move that Mr. Bradley says will result in job losses at the public utility, especially if it privatizes some of its generators.

“This change can be either embraced or resisted…but if this change is not embraced then ultimately it will cost jobs,” he said.

Those jobs Mr. Bradley was talking about will come from New Brunswick’s mills, which need to find lower energy costs in order to compete in markets where energy prices are already dropping.

According to Mr. Bradley, it is these large industries that are driving deregulation and privatization forward.

“The average home user of electricity is not wound up about electricity bills. The ones pushing this are industries, because they see a threat from global markets,” he said, adding that it is difficult for people to understand why the status quo is no longer viable.

“The problem occurs when plants shut down and jobs are lost and only then are the voters going to say ‘why on earth did we let this happen?'”

Not everyone shared Mr. Bradley’s view that deregulation is inevitable.

Randy Dickinson, the executive director of the Premier’s Council on the Status of Disabled Persons, said he did not welcome the arrival of deregulation in New Brunswick, especially if it means jobs will be lost at NB Power.

According to Mr. Dickinson, the public utility has a good record for providing employment for people with disabilities and for looking after staff members injured at work.

“NB Power has a better record in employment equity than other private companies,” he said.

Like Mr. Dickinson, retired electrical power engineer Neil Craik believes legislators should think twice before selling Point Lepreau to a private corporation like British Energy, a company that has expressed an interest in the plant.

“They have no experience with the Candu system so I have great difficulty in understanding what expertise they would bring,” said Mr. Craik.

“What is it technically they are bringing to the table that we don’t already have in New Brunswick?”

The 11 members of the committee will get a first-hand glimpse at the nuclear power plant tomorrow when they visit it as part of their investigation into deregulation.

The committee will then break for the legislature, and will resume public hearings in January.

 

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