The announcement of the tentative agreement to sell NB Power is a game changer on the Atlantic Canada political scene, with severe reverberations hitting Newfoundland and to a lesser degree, Nova Scotia. Only Quebec, the originator of the storm, seems immune. Of course, Quebec is 10 times larger than New Brunswick, so the $4.75 billion proposed purchase of NB Power is relatively small potatoes compared to Hydro-Québec’s debt of $35 billion. With total assets of $67 billion their debt-to-asset ratio of 53 per cent is quite healthy.
One of the facts of business life is that most businessmen don’t make difficult choices until it becomes absolutely necessary. Shawn Graham, as CEO of this province, is no different. Nearing the end of his first mandate, he has two financial problems looming – first, the provincial deficit is ballooning and $1 billion may be added for the current year.
Secondly, delays in the refurbishment of Point Lepreau have delivered extra costs to NB Power for the purchase of replacement power. This would make a rate hike unavoidable, and certainly unwelcome before an election.
Given that discussions began early in 2009, it is likely that a sale of NB Power was seen as the neutralizing agent to fix these potentially fatal electoral roadside bombs.
Let’s look dispassionately at the proposal. What is the reality, what is just spin and what is just not true? There are many talk radio shows going on and I’ve listened to a few. Citizens are concerned and want answers.
One of the recurring themes of callers is the idea that Quebec is suspect and their hydro company cannot be trusted to provide power to New Brunswick. We might call it fear of the unknown or fear of significant change in our lives, xenophobia or in some cases Francophobia.
Leaving aside the Quebec-Newfoundland issues related to Churchill Falls for the moment, most observers would say that Hydro-Québec is a well run-utility that is professional and technically competent. Like all large organizations within the state sector and often the private sector, the productivity of employees may leave room for improvement. This also is the case at NB Power, which has consistently avoided making those tough management decisions. (NB Power does find the time to address and implement management bonuses.)
Hydro-Québec regularly delivers power or contracts with utilities south of the border and one doesn’t hear of broken contracts or poor performance. In fact, given the worst case of a separate Quebec outside of Canada, wouldn’t it be extra important for credibility of the new state to fulfill all contracts signed by state organizations like Hydro-Québec?
Could we set aside the Quebec-baiting or fear factor and understand that our own failure to manage NB Power is not the fault of Quebec or their utility?
A second theme mentioned by the government and by some citizens is that NB Power’s debt is unmanageable and we would be unable to reduce it. Not so. For example, under the management of Jim Hankinson between 1996 and 2001, NB Power reduced net debt by $423 million. There is a natural pattern of capital expenditures on new plants in some years and subsequent debt reduction in following years. It happened again after the Coleson Cove rebuild. What remains crucial is good operational cost control and that ongoing capital costs are cut to allow debt to shrink quickly after a major project.
If we compare NB Power’s rates with many others, we can see that the rates are very reasonable. Residential rates in N.B. are 11.66 cents; N.S. is 12.88, and P.E.I. at 17.3 cents; Calgary charges 12.13 cents and New York, 25.3 cents. Only the provinces with significant hydro power, such as Manitoba, B.C. or Quebec, are lower. The same is true for large industrial rates. Ontario charges a cent and a half more than N.B., and who has more industry than our Upper Canadian brothers?
Let’s not fool ourselves that debt at our utility was the reason for the sale or the most important factor. But ever since the building of Lepreau, we haven’t wanted to pay the real cost of electric power, and political leaders from Richard Hatfield down the line wouldn’t bite the bullet and allow rates to rise to lower the debt level. As well, management at NB Power hasn’t controlled costs on a consistent basis. The debt is high but manageable on every level but political, it seems.
We’ve only begun the peeling of this particular onion. This story is quite complex for one column, so let’s look at the self-sufficiency agenda, emissions, peak oil, Newfoundland and lower power rates, on another day. Hopefully, our eyes won’t water too much when we discover the rest of the story.