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Canada 150

Newfoundland’s Hydroelectric Megaproject Is a Disaster 500 Years in the Making

Canada’s on the hook for this mess too, by the way.

Drew Brown

Drew Brown

Asset/image sources, Wikimedia Commons.

It's another banner week in the fine province of Newfoundland and Labrador. We had a three day run of nice weather that got everyone burned to bits and we learned that the hydroelectric megaproject at Muskrat Falls is going to cost the province another billion dollars. For those of you playing the home game, we are now at an estimated cost of $12.7 billion, up from the $7.7 the Tory government promised us back when they sanctioned the project in 2012. We're over time and over budget and I will eat my hat and my first-born child if we get this piece of shit built without the final damage cracking lucky number 13.

More than just cost overruns are at stake, of course. The best (and constantly shifting) current estimates suggest that the electricity bills of most Newfoundlanders will double or maybe triple whenever the project comes online, forcing larges swathes of the country's poorest province to start choosing between rent or groceries or power. The provincial government may not even feel the full sting of all this until 15 or 20 years down the line when we have to start paying for all this with interest, and this still doesn't take into account the concerns of the Indigenous groups and Labradorians who live in the areas directly affected who might have to contend with their homes flooding or their water poisoned or both. Then, of course, there is always the possibility that the geographical site of the dam itself is unstable and we run the risk of the North Spur dam collapsing, wrecking the area, bankrupting the province and maybe killing a bunch of people.

To say that the arse has gone right out of her is an understatement. The arse has never ceased going right out of her and indeed it seems increasingly clear that perhaps she never had an arse at all. Newfoundland is sailing arseless into a date with hydroelectric destiny and neither all the king's horses nor all the king's men can ever put the arse back up into her again.

The flaming pit of sulphur and broken dreams we call Muskrat Falls is a long and troubled history, stretching back at least to 2010. You could also argue that it goes back even further to 1969, or 1933, or 1927, or 1895, or maybe even 1832 when William Carson and Patrick Morris first brought down this wretched curse of settler self-government upon all future generations.

I hope my genteel readers in Upper Canada will forgive me for rattling off the greatest hits of Newfoundland's magisterial history of failure but it just want to stress how deep the rot might go. It might be valuable information given that the federal government is also on the hook for the project thanks to both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau collectively promising the NL government a nearly $8 billion loan guarantee. It might be a good time for our overlords upalong to start paying attention.

How did this happen? That's the $12.7-billion question that nobody in the government seems to want to ask. The political dimensions of this project have always been the most farcical and terrifying and the present moment is no different. The opposition Progressive Conservatives, whose government rammed this project through with almost no oversight while gleefully mocking all dissent as stupid and treasonous, are now presenting themselves as the champions of public accountability on the assumption that no one in the province remembers the years 2010-2015 and also that the Liberals are so calamitously useless that they will fuck up what should be a slam-dunk on the ex-government.

They are likely right, because Dwight Ball is actually the most ill-suited and catastrophically inept person ever to occupy the Newfoundland Premier's Office—even compared to the guy who once tried to import bison or the one who spent millions trying to grow hydroponic cucumbers. The premier is profoundly and pathologically terrified of both making a decision and giving a straight answer about it. The sitting Liberals, caught like drunken moose in the headlights of an 18-wheeler, are trying to pin all the blame for this catastrophe on the old government and their goons on the board of Nalcor but refuse to call a forensic audit or public inquiry into whatever transpired to take the price tag from $7.7 to $12.7 billion on the rationale that it would delay the project and cost even more, which is akin to refusing to diagnose a seriously ill person because you're waiting for the results of the autopsy.

We are obligated to keep throwing good money after bad and to keep the whole wretched enterprise moving because Sunk Cost is the only guiding principle in the province.

It is an open question whether or not the premier and the ministers on the file are actually as blindingly dumb as they appear to be or whether or not there are high-profile members of the Liberal party who like their Tory counterparts are also affiliated with any one of the small army of contractors and business interests making off like bandits from this megaproject, because there is no meaningful difference in political parties here except arbitrary tribal loyalty. The entire political and economic establishment of this province is one big thieves guild grabbing everything that isn't nailed down and milking the investors and taxpayers and federal government for all they're worth until either the taps shut off or the grifters die. No one wants to pick up the rock and look beneath it because every one of the bugs scurrying in the dirt is somebody's fifth cousin or drinking buddy or a long-time party donor. The rot goes right down to the foundation and everyone sitting at a glossy wooden desk in St. John's knows that the minute someone makes a sudden move the entire edifice will fall in on itself and we'll really be fucked then buddy let me tell you.

We are obligated to keep throwing good money after bad and to keep the whole wretched enterprise moving because Sunk Cost is the only guiding principle in the province. The entire Dominion of Newfoundland in all it's constitutional variations from fishing station to province has only continued its existence out of one big endless appeal to the sunk cost fallacy even as the fishery collapses and the oil industry becomes unprofitable and we bury all the heritage that tourists pay to see beneath the parking lot of the most offensively banal North American chain stores and everyone who is smart and passionate and driven to make the world a better place looks up at the Confederation Building and says Jesus Christ, What A Mess, I'm Getting Out Of Here, leaving only the absolute dregs of the bottom of the barrel to keep throwing good money after bad forever until the last 10 people left here under 40 are standing around a nursing home tending to their dying parents and finally admit that maybe it's time we wrapped this up and leave Newfoundland to sink beneath the waves as the world's most scenic graveyard.

Muskrat Falls is an error of Biblical proportions and somebody bears the blame. Call an inquiry and make the entire political and business class sit in front of a judge on camera and explain why exactly they let an oligarch like Danny Williams lead them on a manic delusion into the Labrador wilderness and carry the rest of us and the future of our children with them. There is a reason why Nalcor has run amok over freedom of the press and insists on throwing Indigenous women in lakeside dungeons more psychologically traumatizing than the breakup of Yugoslavia. Call a goddamn audit and tell us how this happened and where the money went. The mind reels at all the madness that has already unfolded and all the rest that surely is to come.

There must be someone, somewhere, with the power and the spine to address this. We need answers. We need justice. Somebody has to pay for this.

God knows none of us little people will ever be able to afford it.

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