Atlantic Canada must make tough energy decisions

Over the course of the past decade, energy issues have become louder and louder in Atlantic Canada; today, energy policy has recently often been the single biggest file for governments in the region. With the Muskrat Falls megaproject, shale gas exploration, and the Energy East pipeline have come a number of decisions Easterners must make—these decisions will play a large part in shaping the region’s economic future.

Let’s first examine the Lower Churchill Project. The project is often simply referred to as “Muskrat Falls,” the waterfall that is being developed for electiricty generation. Muskrat Falls will be owned by Nalcor, which the NL government created in 2007 as a publically-owned electricity-market monopolist. Through its subsidiary NL Hydro, Nalcor has the sole right to supply and sell electricity in the province. And despite the fact that government’s Lower Churchill development plan includes the construction of a Maritime link that connects NL’s electric grid to the mainland’s without passing through Quebec, the NL government has severely restricted interprovincial trade.

By denying Newfoundlanders and Labradorians other electricity options, the province’s government has given Nalcor the power to raise its rates at a whim. This power allows for the construction of the Muskrat Falls project, which will cost $7.7-billion.Without its monopoly, Nalcor would not be able to pay for the project: many economists think the project in uneconomical. In fact, NL’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) could not conclude that the project was the province’s least-cost energy option, stating that there were “gaps in Nalcor’s information and analysis.”

Because of the project’s high costs, the NL government will have to borrow $5-billion—that is, nearly $10,000 for each of its of its residents. With these potential consequences for the both the province’s debt and its electrical rates and output, the NL government’s management of Muskrat Falls will have serious ramifications for the province far into the future.

Muskrat Falls also has ramifications for Nova Scotian energy markets. Emera, Nova Scotia’s publically traded energy corporation will cover 20 per cent of the Maritime link’s cost in exchange for 20 per cent of the electricity produced at Muskrat Falls. Further, Nalcor will be able to use Emera’s transmission rights to sell electricity in the Maritimes and New England.

New Brunswick (NB) faces an equally dramatic energy situation. Two issues dominate energy discussions in the province: hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline. Tests for shale gas, which NB Premier David Alward hopes will be extracted through fracking, have prompted locals to (often violently) protest. Fiscally, however, potential fracking revenues seem to be the NB government’s only way to pay for its current level of services without raising taxes or adding to the provincial debt, which is approaching $12-billion.

Although New Brunswick’s fracking debate has been Atlantic Canada’s loudest, shale-gas extraction proposals have also provoked argument in NL and Nova Scotia. Recently, the NL government imposed a moratorium on fracking until it has consulted the public and conducted reviews. Nova Scotia has had a fracking moratorium for about two years, though it is set to expire this summer.

New Brunswick can also expect to benefit from the construction of the Energy East pipeline, which will bring Albertan oil to Saint John’s Irving Oil refinery. The most noticeable gains from project will take place during its development and construction: a report by Deloitte found that the pipeline will boost New Brunswick’s GDP by $1.1-billion in this period. And during its 40-year operations phase, the pipeline project will add $1.6-billion to the province’s economy, though it will only directly create 121 permanent jobs.

With Muskrat Falls, NL is taking a significant fiscal risk and trapping consumers with the hope of becoming an energy power. Any jurisdiction that allows fracking must balance the benefits of increased economic activity and royalties with potential environmental harm and local frustrations. And the Energy East pipeline could give NB the sort of economic and fiscal boost it needs. Energy may enrich Atlantic Canada, but squandering it may breed regret.

Michael Sullivan is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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