Gas pains for Wynne – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal (February 1, 2013)

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

IT is hard to argue Kathleen Wynne’s first decision as premier-elect of Ontario. Facing an $11-billion budget deficit, the government must question every bit of proposed spending to ensure it’s in taxpayers’ best interest. Using that logic Wynne has said a public inquiry into the Liberal government’s cancellation of two suburban Toronto gas plants in seats it tried to save will be too expensive.

That might fly if she would approve an alternative to the NDP’s demand for an inquiry. But she has not committed to a Progressive Conservative call to reconstitute a legislative committee that was about to delve into the matter when Premier Dalton McGuinty suddenly resigned and prorogued the legislature.

It has already cost Ontario taxpayers at least $230 million to scrap the two gas-fired generating stations and the Liberals were guilty of failing to produce all of the paperwork — which the opposition charges will reveal even more cost.
Wynne has acknowledged there may yet be more documents that should be revealed.

But the discovery of an email from an energy ministry employee directing the Ontario Power Authority on which documents to release and which to withhold demands Wynne act decisively to mend this wound on the government’s reputation. If she won’t approve reforming the all-party committee how can she offer absolute assurance the whole story will come out? Surely she won’t ask us to simply trust her.

Given the lengths McGuinty and others went to in order to try to put a lid on this, given that his former energy minister, Chris Bentley, was found to have withheld documents, and given Wynne’s need to rid herself of this and other ties to a recent Liberal past that became sordid with scandals, one might be forgiven for thinking there is a lot more to this than a few final pages of information. Until Ontarians are satisfied they’ve been given the whole story, Wynne has to be sure that it is all told.

Now just 10 days from being sworn in as premier, Wynne is also facing stubborn resistance from Northwestern Ontario officials to the government’s position on the provincial power station in Thunder Bay.

The Ontario Power Generation plant was to have been converted from coal to natural gas as part of the government’s commitment to cleaner air. The project has now been put on hold twice — again at considerable cost to taxpayers — and Bentley, who initially agreed with local officials he wanted to see the reasoning by the end of last year, opted to wait for the Ontario Power Authority to produce a plan it says can power the Northwest less expensively via an expansion to its main east-west line.

Bentley is now gone and while northern mayors and business officials wait to see who will replace him as energy minister, they’ve put the pressure squarely on Wynne to make this matter among her top priorities.

The good news is that Wynne is on top of the file. And the matter is no longer in the hands of provincial power officials; it instead rests with the Ontario cabinet which will be reformed next week.

The bad news, says the city’s energy task force, is that a tie-line expansion will come too late to service huge growth in the regional mining sector. The tax revenue to Ontario alone means Wynne cannot afford to risk the possibility of losing investment in the mining industry. At the same time, she must work through the intricacies of First Nations consultation that is essential to mining exploration and development on traditional aboriginal land.

In the meantime, the real possibility of power outages looms when the coal plant is shut down in December. Union Gas has already cancelled its plans to expand local pipeline capacity to meet the needs of a converted power plant and importing energy from Manitoba, mentioned as a possibility, is probably seven years away.

Wynne’s new energy minister must provide the Northwest with the absolute assurance of sufficient electricity for its near- and long-term future.