Monday, 1 October 2018


Comments for Muskrat Falls Symposium sponsored by the Sociology Department of Memorial University organized under the leadership of Dr. Stephen Crocker:

I have been asked to discuss the Uncle Gnarley Blog and the impact it might have had on public understanding of the Muskrat Falls project. I will be careful not to perform an appraisal best left to others.

One might ask: why blog anyway? It’s a lot of work. One reason was that no clairvoyance was required to see that this project would end badly and those who saw it that way had an obligation to warn the public.  The business case could not stand up to scrutiny.   Those responsible needed to be held to account.

Nalcor gave a false narrative about the unavailability of power from the Upper Churchill in 2041 and seriously understated construction risk. They constructed a 50 year demand forecast for electricity which could not survive even the construction phase. Well before construction started the Province and the Feds were talking about the need to import Irish and Mexican labour because of competition for local hires from Western Canada. Don't tell me we built MF because we needed the jobs.

There was no enforceable Water Management Agreement governing coordination of the water flows on the Churchill River - a requirement before even one shovel of dirt was dug - and practically no senior megaproject expertise; cronyism helped select senior management and the board of directors.  No independent oversight of the project followed.
Yet, we are led to believe, even as the cost doubled, that the decision to sanction was prudently made.

The idea that a small society of half a million people should risk a multi-billion project for a couple of hundred megawatts of power, and let it skirt normal political and institutional checks and balances, could only have been divined in the parallel universe of Alice in Wonderland.

The truth is that the politicians of the day levered the sanction decision on a condition known as ‘uninformed public’, though denial and partisanship also played a role.
The public is very late in acknowledging what has transpired; hence, many are still focussed on power rates.

The conundrum of our time is whether to choose a woodstove or a mini-split – when the whole Province should be considering the ramifications of a crushed Treasury and how it will affect decent health and social services.

It is ironic, too, that Ed Martin and Danny Williams are stuck in a paradigm of delusion, each still perpetuating the myth that NL will be swimming in revenues from the project.
Yet, in our parallel world - not Lewis Carroll's - daily conversation is about rate mitigation and insolvency and the weight of a $25 billion total provincial debt.

Against this backdrop, the question of whether the Uncle Gnarley Blog has been influential seems fanciful.
I had hoped that it might help bridge the gulf between Nalcor perpetuated propaganda, on the one hand, and fact-based analysis, on the other.  

The reality, however, is that it took billions of dollars of waste and cost overruns and the threat of energy poverty and insolvency – not objective analysis - to awaken people to the charade.

The Blog’s purpose was to try and fill a void left by a media that freely chose not to occupy the Muskrat space.

I had a few credentials to offer but I like to think that the most important one was common sense.

The internet afforded immediate accessibility and a reach rich in potential for the sharing of opinion and analysis, though I quickly learned that readership and public confidence are both hard won.

For that reason, I think that any success achieved was due largely to persistence and possibly a recognition that a high standard of research and writing would have to be enforced.

The consistency of the posts, the lengthy explanations, charts, exhibits, the absence of political bias, the practice of announcing revelations obtained under ATTIPA or from confidential sources, and the opportunity to apply Nalcor’s own words against them - which were often contradictory or embellished – at some point earned a steadily increasing readership.

Highly complex issues needed to be tackled - from Water Management to the North Spur, from the stupidity of the "Dome" to the exhibition of incompetent Quality Control exhibited best by the popped cable, from the giveaway of both "free" and "cheap" power to Nova Scotia - which had no relationship with the cost of production - to the false promise of revenue from power exports.

Even the 50 year Power Purchase Agreement was sold under the claim of intergenerational equity whose purpose was to obscure a hideous “take or pay” contract that hooked Island ratepayers for the full cost of the project – one that was based on escalating demand among a declining population and absent the admission that the capital costs had been low-balled. 
Complex posts often resulted; many lacked the journalist’s clearer style, their talent for making the complex comprehensible.

Blog readership increased dramatically over time, which I largely attribute to the high quality of analysis performed by guest contributors.

Presently, PlanetNL performs exceptional financial and public policy analysis, but in the early days of Muskrat, JM was a star engineer with enormously valuable insights. David Vardy, a former Clerk of the Executive Council and Chair of the PUB was a prodigious and insightful analyst and is still a major contributor.

Cabot Martin’s work on the North Spur was important as was that of renowned Hydro Engineer, James L. Gordon, who wrote a good many posts.  Like PlanetNL and JM, there were contributors needing anonymity, like Agent 13 and the Anonymous Engineer. There were many other contributors, too.

Undoubtedly, the clincher was the story of the Anonymous Engineer and the revelation – supported by Grant Thornton - that the budget estimates for the project had been low-balled.

Was the Uncle Gnarley Blog influential?

Certainly the analysis contributed to a deepening public concern that in the euphoria of an impossible promise, they had been misled.

Did it expose Ed Martin and help set the basis for his departure and the mishandling by the Ball Administration of his severance package? It might have had an impact.
Did it help expose Nalcor as poorly led and undeserving of the public trust? It did.
Did the revelations of the Anonymous Engineer advance the call of the Commission of Inquiry? I am confident it did.

I think that without the revelations made on the Blog, a lot less light would have shined on the debacle. Denial by the authorities is much harder when the public record is confirmed by proof that they were warned.

Some politicians have suggested that bloggers should be ignored because they are not accountable. I would ask: are they less accountable than politicians? Bloggers certainly don’t have politicians’ protections. And, like all citizens, bloggers must avoid slander.
By and large this group of scribes seek only to increase public dialogue. They know that in the social media space they will be called out in a millisecond if their narrative flies in the face of the facts.
Source: The Telegram October 25, 2012
There is another dimension to this question. How do we hold Danny and his colleagues to account other than by rejecting them at the polls? Is that really sufficient accountability for inflicting monstrous damage on a small and vulnerable society?

Should we be quiet in the meantime, as a manipulative crown corporation selectively dishes out grants to a plethora of community, public service and other groups in a scheme that duplicates the Government’s role, in which all, including those denied, are expected to remain silent for fear of disenfranchising themselves from future rewards?

The politics of fear and deference to arbitrary authority has no place in this province and Uncle Gnarley has no time for that game.

Finally, there is at least some reason for hope when our institutions fail. An important example is the Access to Information Act without which the ability of private citizens to play a role in the public policy apparatus and to expose bad decisions, cover ups and misinformation, would be far more difficult.

There is a message here for the Blogging community and it is that, in addressing public policy issues, individual citizens have been granted a powerful platform. But the work is not effortless. It is a monumental task. Done poorly, you will be ignored. Done well, expect the readership build to be slow.

As much as I am critical of mainstream media, a free, responsive and responsible press is a core requirement for a democratic society.    

I am guilty of expressing frustration when they are unwilling to give an issue like Muskrat investigative time and the truth is they could have done far better. But Muskrat required a depth of analysis unlikely to have come out of any media organization.

The best brakes on Muskrat ought to have been applied at the start, first by politicians sensitive to the risks being imposed on a small, aging and shrinking population and then by review institutions established for the purpose. 

Finally, there are many expectations of Judge LeBlanc. I am hoping that he will chastise reckless politicians and feckless officials. But even more, I want to see him issue a clarion call for the strengthening of our oversight institutions. I hope that he throw down the gauntlet to the media, to other institutions (including to Memorial) and to all individuals and groups in our society, reminding us that we have to do better. 

I began by suggesting that Muskrat has the characteristics of parody in a world of Alice in Wonderland. Our problem, however, is that as a society we don't get to put down our version of that book. In Alice, we find great humour but the problem, in its full dimension, is that the solutions are no laughing matter. As much as they think it might, no individual, no group and no institution, including Memorial, will escape Muskrat folly's cruel reward. Memorial can do more.

Dr. Crocker is bringing the cultural community to the table for the first time.  In addition, because the Terms of Reference set by government downplays the environmental, social and political impact of MF, MUN researchers can fill that void and offer their research to the Inquiry.  They can also speak up; very few have.

In this context, Memorial will be expected to help find the solutions which will surely be needed if we are to remain a viable society.

Let me close by thanking Dr. Crocker for his leadership in sponsoring this Symposium.