Over the past decade and a half, Manitobans have been witness to one of the most cynical, self-serving manipulations of a crown property in our almost-150-year history. Manitoba Hydro, its scandalous mismanagement and callous disregard for rational analyses, has put our province and its people at risk, due to the NDP government’s stubborn insistence on following an ill-advised path of expansion even in the face of well-founded, sensible advice to the contrary.
It is not good enough to lie down quietly and accept that we and our kids and our kids’ kids and their kids after that are going to have to pay for the NDP debacle that is Hydro for the next century. Manitobans deserve to know what happened and why, and then we need to create a strategy so that such abuse of a public utility can never happen again.
To get to the bottom of this scandal and ensure that it can never happen again, we need the province to call a public enquiry into the mistakes and misjudgments by the then-NDP government and its politically appointed board and management that have led to a debt of over $6 billion and a resulting call for rate increases that will severely damage our people and our economy.
Here are some of the questions that need to be asked:
- Why did the NDP government ignore advice to postpone expansion at a time when hydro power was under challenge from the discovery of how to source cheap natural gas from shale?
- Why did the NDP government refuse to accept advice to build a natural gas plant in Brandon, close to our provincial supply, when the cost would have been only five per cent of the at-the-time projected cost of dam expansion?
- Why did the NDP government stubbornly insist that Hydro go ahead with building dams such as Keeyask when its production will not be needed until the 2040s, if ever? And why did they proceed with Wuskwatim, which was built to supply American markets, when the best that plant will be able to recoup in revenue is only about one quarter of its cost per kWh? And, critically, how did the costs escalate to over $2.2 billion from the initial estimate of $900 million?
- How did Manitoba Hydro end up paying 60 per cent of the costs for building the Manitoba-Minnesota line, when the original deal anticipated that it would be paid for by United States utilities?
- How did they plan to deal with the fact that our firm power contracts with Americans end only 12 years from now, when the dams are amortized over 100 years? Why would they fund the development with loans that have much shorter terms and will have to be renegotiated several times as interest rates rise?
- And, of course, the never ending question as to why Greg Selinger arbitrarily changed the eastern route of BiPole III to the west side of the province, when it would severely exacerbate the costs while reducing the amount of power that would reach the end user?
And finally, what are the details of the ‘partnerships’ concluded with First Nations as their consolation prize for not getting the opportunities that would have come their way with an east-side line construction?
These are just a few of the unanswered questions that a public enquiry needs to uncover. And while they are at it, the enquiry should also look into the details and rationale surrounding the decision to fund health care vesting for people who suffer a catastrophic health episode, disrupting their ability to earn a living and therefore making them unable to afford the first $1,500 or so of pharmaceutical costs? Why would funds from a utility be used for such a purpose? And how many more of these side deals were in play where Hydro has been used as a piggy bank for the NDP government?
These are very serious issues. If allowed to go through, the proposed rate increases will have a devastating impact on many of Manitoba’s most vulnerable citizens, especially those in rural Manitoba and the north, where some Hydro bills are already stretching past $600 a month. A doubling or even tripling of rates will also have a negative impact on our attractiveness to industry and other businesses.
A public enquiry will turn the spotlight on how this mess came to be and give the new government the ammunition it needs to ensure that such events never happen again.
The new Hydro board and government continue to look for creative answers to clean up the mess. Seeing into all the nasty, murky little dealings of the 17-year NDP-Hydro partnership can only help in discovering the solution.