VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – The Ongoing Muskrat Falls Debacle: How not to Develop the North

On the 22nd and 23rd of Feburary 2018, the College of New Scholars of the Royal Society of Canada, in collaboration with Memorial’s Department of Philosophy and the Labrador Institute, will host a public symposium dedicated to an interdisciplinary discussion of the scientific, cultural, and social-political dimensions of the controversial Muskrat Falls hydro-electrical project on the lower Churchill River in Labrador. Our proximate objective is to offer a venue for all of the voices and to give as generous a hearing to the various positions on the issue as possible. The intention is not protest but knowledge dissemination. We are proposing to bring together an interdisciplinary team of researchers, some of whom have dedicated their careers to studying Muskrat, to tell the story in all of its scientific, economic, social and political-ecological complexity. The following op ed is written by one of the organizers and does not necessarily represent the views of the RSC, Memorial University, the organizing committee or anyone else involved in this event.

Sean McGrath, Department of Philosophy, Memorial University of Newfoundland

The massive hydro-electric project on the lower Churchill River in Labrador is expected to go online in 2019. Described as a “boondoggle” by policy makers and at 12.7 billion dollars–over double the anticipated budget–the Muskrat Falls project emerged into international attention in the fall of 2016 when protesters occupied the Labrador premises of the Newfoundland and Labrador energy corporation, Nalcor. The protesters demanded that the company and the government of Newfoundland heed a joint MUN/Harvard study that proved that if the flood basin was not cleaned of vegetation prior to flooding, the surrounding lands would be poisoned with methylmercury for years to come, endangering the lives of Innu and Inuit who depended upon the fish and game to survive. At the zero hour, and with an unprecedented hunger strike threatening the lives of protesters, the government relented and agreed to clear the basin. But problems continue to this day, with Nalcor refusing to produce documentation to satisfy local concerns that the builders of the dam have reckoned with the seasonal instability of the river bank (particularly the north spur), and also denying, against local knowledge, that spawning salmon populations are at risk due to low water levels. The protest has never in fact stopped, as this writer learned recently on a visit to the site.

Economically, no one denies that Muskrat is a fiscal disaster. Nalcor CEO, Stan Marshall, sees little prospects for the province to recoup its losses. “I think this project is a hell of a lot worse … deal than the Upper Churchill,” Marshall said in recent interview. Memorial University of Newfoundland economist Dr. James Feehan has proven that it is virtually impossible for the project to break even. Moreover, by flooding the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador with hydro-electric energy for generations, Muskrat Falls has doomed the development of other sustainable energy in the province, such as wind and solar. The project is called “green” but when one considers the transformation of the Churchill river, the flooding of indigenous ancestral lands, and the adverse effect on human and non-human communities, the descriptor is dubious at best.

Historian Dr. Jerry Bannister at Dalhousie University has argued that the 20th century political history of Newfoundland is key to understanding why the project goes ahead, despite its unprofitability. In the early 2000, former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams promised to make right the infamous bad deal signed by Premier Joey Smallwood in the late 1960s to export hydro-electric power through Quebec from the dam on the upper Churchill River in Labrador. The Churchill Falls dam is an infamous economic failure for the province. According to the original deal, Newfoundland and Labrador must sell the power to Quebec at 1969 rates, while Quebec resells the energy at current rates. According to conservative estimates, Newfoundland and Labrador has lost billions of dollars on Churchill Falls. Muskrat Falls, according to Bannister, is driven not so much by neo-Liberal economic as by Newfoundland nationalism.

“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

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