HYDRO One’s bid to build a new high-voltage power line between Thunder Bay and Wawa, which came crashing down Thursday courtesy of a provincial Order-in-Council directive, was doomed from the start.
Though the utility’s concept was intriguing — it proposed to shave $100 million off the project’s price tag by routing the East-West Tie line through Pukaskwa National Park — it just never caught on.
When word of its bid began to circulate late in 2017, most of the major players, namely First Nation agencies, as well as Thunder Bay district municipalities, had long been working with, and were supportive of, the company that ultimately got the nod Thursday to build the line — NextBridge Infrastructure.
Rather than welcoming a second bidder for the project, the supporters of NextBridge — and there were many — regarded Hydro One as an interloper. The utility’s bid came too late in the game; many worried it was going to throw a monkey wrench into five years worth of groundwork that had already been laid for the project.
About six years ago, the province gave NextBridge the nod to conduct pre-development work on the 230,000-kilovolt line. The Ontario Energy Board later clarified, also somewhat late in the game, that it never guaranteed that NextBridge would get the bid to actually construct the line. But by the time that qualification was made public, it seemed well, too late.
Too much serious work had been done. Complex agreements with First Nation agencies and municipalities along the route had been hammered out. An Alberta-based contractor had been selected to oversee construction. NextBridge was a big industry player; there was never any doubt about its ability to get the job done and, as far as anyone involved could tell, the province had never raised any objections.
Crucially, NextBridge had reached an agreement with the Indigenous consortium‚ — Bamkushwada Ltd. — that will see that agency have a 20-per-cent ownership stake in the East-West Tie once it’s up and running. This was a major achievement that nobody wanted to monkey with especially.
Hydro One promised to match those kinds of agreements, but that cut no ice with Bamkushwada, which interpreted Hydro One’s offer as untenable interference. Bamkushwada president Peter Collins was among those who were incredulous that the previous Liberal government was allowing Hydro One to screw everything up. That was how they felt, and they were dead serious.
One thing that did raise eyebrows was NextBridge’s hefty price-tag of $737 million. NextBridge attributed that to delays in getting the project approved — which seemed legitimate, because the approval process seemed to go on forever — plus the added of cost bypassing Pukaskwa altogether. Doing that will add 50 more kilometres to the length of the line, bringing the total length to 450 km.
Though the OEB’s concerns about costs were genuine, the reality was that the players didn’t seem spooked by NextBridge’s big price. The line would likely operate for at least 50 years, and NextBridge’s plan for two separate corridors — one for the new line, the other left intact for Hydro One’s existing 230 kV line — seemed to make sense for what is definitely a long-term project.
It was also disconcerting that Parks Canada had never formally endorsed Hydro One’s option to go through the park. Would the federal agency oppose the utility’s plan, creating even more delays? Nobody seemed to know, but one thing seemed certain: NextBridge’s proposal wouldn’t face that headache.
The bottom line seemed to be that NextBridge’s plan was reasonably well thought out. It had the support of the major players and, equally important, people had waited long enough to take advantage of 600, high-paying construction jobs.
The person who seemed to realize all that, and came out looking rather good in the end, was Energy and Northern Development and Mines Minister Greg Rickford.
Rickford, who wrote to the OEB in the fall asking for a speedy decision on a builder, no doubt shared in the frustration when the agency appeared to ignore his entreaties, announcing in late December that a decision was being delayed. That was likely interpreted as a slap in the face.
Then, on Thursday, it was Rickford’s Order-in-Council directive that put an end to the delay and NextBridge got the bid. Finally, it was over.
Leadership was required and, on this file anyway, Rickford delivered.
(Originally published Feb. 1)