February 25, 1999
FREDERICTON (CP) — Premier Camille Theriault says New Brunswick will hang on to its debt-ridden power utility despite the fact its future is still under study and a growing body of opinion that at least part should be sold.
Theriault said Thursday that NB Power, Atlantic Canada’s largest utility, will remain a public utility and will not be chopped up and sold to private bidders to satisfy the demands of deregulation and an increasingly competitive marketplace.
He reiterated in the legislature an announcement he made during his annual state of the province address that “our power company will remain our power company.”
His comments infuriated opposition members of the legislature’s energy committee who feel the novice premier — he has been on the job less than a year — has undermined their job of considering the future of NB Power.
“You have scuttled the work of this committee,” Tory member Peter Mesheau angrily told the premier.
Mesheau is considering quitting the energy committee in protest.
Theriault’s comments also caused concern for some of NB Power’s critics who are hoping the premier isn’t suggesting things will continue as usual at the troubled utility, which is saddled with a $3.5-billion debt.
“The debt situation is a severe, permanent problem,” said Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, a citizen-based consumer group that has studied NB Power.
“Leaving the status quo alone and continuing the mismanagement is just not responsible to the people of New Brunswick. It simply cannot be true that the premier is just going to allow NB Power to continue without adjustments.”
Theriault made his controversial comments during a spirited defence of the often-maligned power corporation. The provincial Crown agency has long enjoyed a monopoly situation in New Brunswick, yet it has still managed to sink deeply into debt.
Theriault said NB Power is an important corporate citizen in the province, adding that whatever unfolds in coming months, it will stay in public hands.
However, he said the government will consider the final report of the legislature energy committee, which has been holding public hearings.
Several presenters at those hearings have recommended that NB Power be broken up and sold. Others have suggested the transmission, distribution and at least some generating assets remain in the public domain.
NDP Leader Elizabeth Weir told the premier the committee should be disbanded in light of his comments.
Adams said he was stunned by Theriault’s attitude.
“There’s an issue of contempt for the legislature,” Adams said.
“The committee is entitled to undertake its inquiries. There’s a history of legislative committees doing good work on the subject of NB Power … they’re an important source of accountability for the utility. I’m concerned to see any weakening of the legislature’s process.”
Energy Minister Doug Tyler said the committee will not be disbanded.