John Chilibeck’s cover piece in the Monday (May 23) Telegraph-Journal, ‘Critic Calls for Closer Look at Plans for Mactaquac Dam’, was worth reading, and I hope the folks at NB Power did. (T-J has a paywall, so I can’t link to it.)  The critic in question is Saint John lawyer Rod Gillis, who:

… grilled NB Power before regulators on past refurbishment projects [and] believes the Crown’s utility has a poor track record of going hundreds of millions over-budget on big projects. He says the only way the public could be assured Mactaquac won’t become a huge financial liability to rate-payers and taxpayers would be for the government to set up a royal commission or judicial inquiry on the utility’s final proposal, expected this November.

In support, he detailed poor decisions, delays and cost overruns in Belledune, Coleson Cove and Point Lepreau, which are all well-documented failures, leading to a $5 billion debt for the utility.  He is sceptical that the current process will do anything but further NB Power agendas. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gillis.

In response, Energy Minister Donald Arsenault argued that a new process was unnecessary because:

NB Power is following an open, transparent and independent process, free from political meddling.

I can say little about the independence of the process, but I have to question on what basis the Minister sees it as open or transparent. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a stingy approach to information-sharing in a public context, particularly the kind of information the people in the area are crying out for, based on our SSHRC-funded research:

  • who would own the land uncovered if the dam was removed?
  • how might post-dam remediation proceed and how long does it typically take to stabilize and green up?
  • what is left down there, in terms of infrastructure, cultural sites, or sediments (and their associated environmental legacies such as chemical residue or toxins from upriver industry and agriculture)?
  • how do the First Nations communities feel?

Moreover, this is not simply a local issue: the decision will affect citizens in the entire province. How are they being engaged? In a fall 2014 survey we did with 500 New Brunswickers, 27% said they knew nothing about the Mactaquac situation, and 41% said “not much”. Only five people said “a lot” and 29 said “quite a bit” I wonder if things have improved since then for the other 93%.

When former colleagues and I made a submission to an Australian House of Reps inquiry about adapting agriculture to climate change, the submission was scanned and posted online immediately, the evidence we gave when invited to appear in front of the committee during public hearings was transcribed into Hansard, and the final report from the process cited both sources (and more) as evidence for recommendations. The NB Commission on Fracking did the same thing. Compare this to what is happening under Mactaquaction, which is being run by a PR company – that fact itself indicative of a desire to control information and manage message. NB Power CEO and President Gaetan Thomas is quoted in Chilibeck’s article as saying:

“…at the end of the day, people will feel they were part of the process because they contributed to this discussion.”

Maybe, but they could also feel that the consultation has been disingenuous and wasted their time because they cannot see the inner workings. What is happening to the information being solicited from the website survey and the public meetings? NB Power should make all input (citizen and expert) public – anonymized where appropriate – to open up their process and avoid later accusations of tokenism or cherry-picking. Mr Gillis’ suggestion would also subject the preferred decision to the interrogation needed to support its ‘independence’ from political influence: as we know from the last NB election, some decisions are more popular than others. Chilibeck’s article includes the news that NB Power will “continue to accept written feedback until May 31”: I think better to put it here, for transparency.

It has been wonderful to see the investment NB Power has made in biophysical science, with the Canada Rivers Institute, but their engagement with and investment in social science has been laughable. Unfortunately, as a result of their lack of trust in people they risk looking untrustworthy themselves. It’s not open and it’s not transparent, and it matters.