Talks with Hydro-Quebec about NB Power at ‘critical’ stage, N.B. gov’t says

(Oct. 27, 2009) FREDERICTON — Negotiations that could see key assets of New Brunswick’s public utility company sold to Hydro-Quebec are at a crucial stage, the government of Premier Shawn Graham said Monday as two other Atlantic premiers expressed concerns about a possible deal.

The New Brunswick government has been under pressure in recent days to reveal details of their discussions with Quebec amid fears that the province could give up control of NB Power, a Crown corporation.

“These talks are now at a critical stage,” provincial Energy Minister Jack Keir said.

“I absolutely understand the fear of the unknown here … if there is a deal at the end of the day, it will be rolled out, be very transparent, and it will be the most important debate we have in the history of New Brunswick in the legislature.”

NB Power was created by New Brunswick’s legislature in 1920, and during the 2006 provincial election campaign Graham vowed to maintain it as a publicly-owned utility.

When asked whether the government was backing down on that commitment, Keir said he would not speculate on the outcome of the discussions.

But Keir said any deal with Quebec must ensure competitive power rates for all New Brunswickers, including small and medium-sized businesses, and address the utility’s massive debt.

“NB Power has nearly a $4.8-billion debt that your kids and grandkids aren’t going to be able to pay back,” Keir said.

He said the deal must also allow New Brunswick to press ahead with a plan to position itself as a conduit for neighbouring provinces to export their power to the northeastern United States.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Premier Danny Williams said he would fight any proposed deal by Hydro-Quebec to take over key power assets in New Brunswick, a move he said was rooted in “greed.”

“If it looks like that is not good for the people of Atlantic Canada, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, the people of the country, then we’d certainly consider going before the Competition Bureau with an anti-competitive claim,” Williams told reporters Monday.

“And then if there’s other legal recourse that we have to look at, then we’re quite prepared to do that as well.”

Williams has long fought with Quebec over the 1969 contract to develop Churchill Falls in Labrador – a deal he says has given that province at least $19 billion in profits while his province has earned only about $1 billion.

He accused Hydro-Quebec of trying to scupper his plans to develop the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project and sell the energy from that development to the U.S.

“They want to make sure that Newfoundland and Labrador will have to do what it did in the past … give (them) our power at meagre rates and then they’ll sell it at exorbitant rates and take all the profit,” Williams said.

“I don’t think the people of Quebec are even aware what Hydro-Quebec is doing, but Hydro-Quebec are saying, ‘No, we’ve got the Upper Churchill. We’re going to take that up to 2041. And now we’re going to try and bring them to their knees on the Lower Churchill,”‘ he added.

“I’ve got to tell you, that will be over my dead body.”

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter also waded into the debate Monday, saying he shares many of Williams’s concerns.

“Anything that concentrates the power utilities in the hands of a single entity like (Hydro-Quebec) has potential ramifications for the energy corridor (to New England),” he said.

An energy analyst with Toronto-based watchdog group Energy Probe said Monday that New Brunswick would lose power over its energy future if it sells assets and transmission capacity to Quebec.

“I don’t know how you effectively regulate Hydro-Quebec with a public utilities commission in New Brunswick,” said Norm Rubin.

“I can’t imagine New Brunswick being influential once this deal is signed.”

But Keir said New Brunswickers shouldn’t be concerned.

“We’re not going to make a deal here with anybody, whoever it might be, unless we’re absolutely convinced this is a great deal for New Brunswickers and that we don’t lose that control that people are worried about,” Keir said.

Provincial Conservative Opposition Leader David Alward called for an immediate recall of the legislature to form a non-partisan committee to study the issue.

“This is too important an issue for the New Brunswick government to present as a done deal,” Alward told reporters.

“We could lose control of our energy supply for the first time in our history.”

Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press, Oct. 27, 2009
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