Momentum builds for Maritime Link after Nova Scotia regulator approves it

HALIFAX – A revised proposal to build a subsea energy link between Newfoundland and Cape Breton cleared a major hurdle Friday after Nova Scotia’s Utility and Review Board approved it, a decision that was met with praise by the governments of both provinces.

Nova Scotia Energy Minister Andrew Younger said he is satisfied the agreement to proceed with the Maritime Link shields customers in his province from unfair price hikes and undue risk.

“Our first interest has always been the protection of Nova Scotia ratepayers,” Younger said.

“We have reviewed the board’s decision and are confident that ratepayers are better protected, and that Emera and Nalcor will bear the project risks, not ratepayers.”

The deal between Emera (TSX:EMA) and Nalcor Energy, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Crown energy company, would see the construction of a 170-kilometre subsea link between southwestern Newfoundland and Cape Breton that would ship hydroelectricity from the Muskrat Falls project.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale said Friday she was pleased with the decision, which brings the Maritime Link one step closer to fruition.

“We were confident that we would arrive at this place and it’s good to be on the other end of it,” said Dunderdale in St. John’s. “There were no surprises here but we’re very happy about today’s development.”

Nova Scotia’s Utility and Review Board tentatively endorsed the Maritime Link earlier this year, but it attached a list of conditions to ensure it doesn’t impose a heavy burden on the province’s electricity customers. The board concluded Friday that the revised deal meets those conditions.

“The benefit of the (agreement) is that it will provide (Nova Scotia Power) with real and tangible advantages when it participates in the energy market,” the board said in its decision. “These benefits will necessarily flow to its customers.”

Emera declined an interview request Friday, but said in a statement that the board’s ruling confirms its long-held position that the Maritime Link is the cheapest long-term energy option for customers of Nova Scotia Power, its subsidiary.

“The $1.5 billion investment in the Maritime Link will provide benefits to Nova Scotia customers that significantly exceed the value of the investment over the life of the project,” said Emera CEO Chris Huskilson.

During the board’s hearings earlier this month on the revised agreement, Nova Scotia’s consumer advocate John Merrick and the province’s small business advocate said they couldn’t support it because it isn’t in the interests of the province’s ratepayers.

Merrick said Friday his position has not changed.

“I think we’re at the position now where we’re basically going to have to wait and see whether the Maritime Link turns out to be a good deal or a bad deal for Nova Scotia ratepayers,” he said in an interview.

Critics in Newfoundland continue to hammer the greater extent to which Nova Scotia’s regulator examined the Maritime Link compared to an aborted review of Muskrat Falls before Newfoundland and Labrador’s Public Utilities Board.

It never endorsed Muskrat Falls, saying it didn’t have enough time or detail to properly assess it. Dunderdale instead relied on government funded consultants’ endorsements before sanctioning the $7.7-billion development now under construction in Labrador.

George Murphy, the NDP energy critic in Newfoundland and Labrador, said he believes ratepayers in his province will pay the price as a result of the deal to forge ahead with the Maritime Link.

Murphy said it’s unfair to his province that Nova Scotia will now have access to more than the 20 per cent of Muskrat Falls power than was originally negotiated, and for cheaper market prices than what ratepayers in Newfoundland and Labrador will have to shoulder to pay off the dam and power plant.

“Newfoundland and Labrador consumers are subsidizing this on the part of Nova Scotia ratepayers,” he said.

Under the agreement, ratepayers in Nova Scotia would pay for the link through their electricity bills.

The 35-year deal would see Nova Scotia supplied with 20 per cent of the energy from Muskrat Falls in exchange for paying 20 per cent of the costs of that project.

Emera and Nalcor Energy are aiming to have power flowing from Muskrat Falls in 2017.

Huskilson said one of the next steps is to finalize a federal loan guarantee that aims to save Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia more than $1 billion in borrowing costs for the Muskrat Falls project.

Younger said his government is seeking improvements to the loan guarantee, which he said would represent $250 million in savings to ratepayers in his province.

— With files from Sue Bailey in St. John’s, N.L.