FREDERICTON – The Liberal government would enter a political war zone if it were to proceed with any plan to sell NB Power, observers say.
“Anytime you sell, restructure or adjust a government-owned monopoly you’re stepping into a political minefield,” says Charles Cirtwill, of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank.
In the past, Cirtwill has called for the province to put NB Power on the same path as its cousin, Nova Scotia Power, now a subsidiary of the energy firm Emera.
But he says New Brunswickers should be concerned if the Liberals are mulling the sale the public utility to another province.
“Are they just replacing one government-owned monopoly with another?” he said.
“If so, you’re giving up control and placing yourself at the mercy of a much larger neighbour. If it’s going to be in government hands, it might as well be your own government.”
New Brunswick officials are currently in discussions with Quebec on a range of energy issues. The talks, which began in June, include officials from Hydro-Québec and NB Power.
In June, Premier Shawn Graham said at that time the talks would focus on securing more cheap hydro power from Quebec, perhaps in exchange for the use of New Brunswick’s electrical grid.
At this point it’s unclear what the discussions will yield. But Conservative leader David Alward is demanding the Graham government open up about the nature of the talks – as well as answer the question: Could NB Power be sold to Hydro-Québec?
That question was again put to Energy Minister Jack Keir on Friday.
“I’m not going to speculate. I’ll let David Alward do the speculating,” Keir told reporters. “That’s what he has been doing.
“What we are looking for are opportunities to stand up with New Brunswickers and make sure we have good competitive power rates in New Brunswick.”
Keir has openly pondered the idea of privatizing NB Power in the past.
He has often complained about the utility’s current structure and has questioned whether it should either be privatized or pulled closer to government.
Conservative Bruce Fitch says a decision by the Liberals to sell NB Power would mark a huge policy reversal.
The Grits promised to maintain NB Power as a publicly-owned utility during the 2006 election.
Fitch said a Liberal reversal would dominate political debate until the provincial election, which must be called in September 2010.
“There are huge political implications,” he said. “The premier or the energy minister should come and clarify if, in fact, that’s what’s on the table.”
Overhauling NB Power is something Fitch is familiar with. The Riverview MLA served as energy minister when the former Tory government pushed hard to privatize the utility.
In response to calls for outside competition In October 2004, NB Power was broken into five different companies to trigger the end of the state monopoly.
But the plan was never carried out to the end goal. Fitch insists there was never a plan to sell NB Power off entirely.
“The wholesale auction of NB Power was never something that was on my desk at that time,” he said.
“Is this just a trial balloon floating across the province? It’s a big issue to be playing games with.”
– with files from Bruce Bartlett