[Thunder Bay] Gas plant delay needs explaining – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (November 9, 2012)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

EVERY once in a while an issue arises with such profound implications that virtually everyone involved pays attention. These things can even cause politicians to go against their own governing party line, though that is all too rare. Both events have occurred in Thunder Bay after the Ontario Power Authority called off conversion of the city’s coal-fired power plant to natural gas.

The conversion, part of the Liberal government’s abandonment of coal-burning generating stations in the interest of cleaner air, was already delayed once, reportedly incurring a penalty of $5 million. Put back on track by the province, this second suspension comes despite the need for a secure local power source for an imminent mining boom that is poised to rescue the region’s flagging economy, create as many as 13,000 area jobs and produce an estimated $16 billion in tax revenue for all three levels government.

The suspension also comes despite personal assurances by Energy Minister Chris Bentley, as recently as August, that the conversion would proceed. Bentley says he wants to allow the OPA time to prove its claim to be able to save up to $400 million by mothballing the plant (a number that astonishes local officials) and make up the lost power from other sources. It’s a plan the region needs to hear, and soon.

Decentralizing the old Ontario Hydro was supposed to produce a leaner, more accountable electricity regimen in Ontario. But soaring costs for power, and for delivering it, have soured many Ontarians on the process which, by this second suspension of work at Thunder Bay, appears even more confused.

One delay was bad enough. A second, which area critics say will add an additional $14 million to the final cost of the conversion project, leaves Northerners with little if any faith left in the complex operations of Ontario Power Generation, which owns and is converting the plant, and the power authority which ordered this second halt to the project. (Hydro One Networks is a whole other issue with frustrated consumers.)

“How dare the OPA ignore specific government direction by causing further delays to the Thunder Bay Generating Station conversion!” said Ron Nelson, president of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association. “These actions jeopardize the conversion and also put at risk billions of dollars of investment in the mining sector by raising concerns that the required power may not be there when it is needed.”

NOMA and other leading regional organizations have been after the government and OPA to suitably plan the provision of power in a vast region that gets by with a hodge-podge of supply and delivery. It has repeatedly asked the OPA for a meeting and been ignored.

“Why is the Ontario government letting this happen?” Nelson asked.

Bentley is a lame-duck minister who opted out of a planned run to replace departing Premier Dalton McGuinty after taking the fall for the government’s ham-fisted abandonment of two natural gas plants in southern Ontario. Not surprisingly, he is quitting politics soon.

Still, he has to answer for the seemingly bizarre decision by OPA to twice start and stop the Thunder Bay project. Local Liberal MPP Bill Mauro has joined NOMA and others in criticizing the decision to suspend the coal plant conversion he has championed. A normally loyal backbencher, Mauro has this time had enough. He has arranged a meeting next Tuesday between Bentley and officials from the City of Thunder Bay and NOMA “to make sure that the minister is fully aware of the concerns of elected officials in the Northwest about OPA’s position, and the importance of moving forward with the plan to upgrade the local plant for conversion.”

There can be little doubt that Bentley is already well aware of these concerns. But area leaders, rightly angry at this second hold-back, deserve the opportunity to tell Bentley face to face just what they think. Good on Mauro for making that happen.