While on the stand last week at the public inquiry into the Muskrat Falls project, Premier Dwight Ball was asked if he might pursue a hydroelectric power project at Gull Island.
Gull Island is a site with far greater potential for power production, with an estimated capacity of 2,250 megawatts (MW), compared to the 824 MW of Muskrat Falls. It is also located on the Churchill River, between the Churchill Falls power plant and Muskrat Falls.
“As I’ve said so many times, there’s a development out there that will have long-lasting benefits for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians,” Ball said of Gull Island. “Right now, there’s no customer for that power.”
However, the premier made a point to mention there is about 1,700 MW worth of coal generation that needs phasing out from the energy generation mix in the Atlantic provinces. In 2012, the Progressive Conservatives viewed Ontario as the prime potential market for Gull Island power. The project would require exporting power through Quebec.
“If there’s a customer out there, that would need Gull Island energy, of course these are discussions that I think the responsible thing for me to do is to have those discussions,” Ball said, repeating there is no customer today.
Lawyer Erin Best asked if Ball would rely on outside experts in evaluating any proposed development plan.
Ball said the responsible thing to do would be to take a look at it.
“I think the responsibility on no matter who the premier is, if there’s an option that we have available to us that would benefit our province — not add extra costs to our province — we need to explore those options. What I’m saying is that the customer base in our province doesn’t need that power right now,” he said.
The Liberals have been consistent on their position when it comes to Gull Island. They’re not dismissing it as an idea, but they don’t want Nalcor Energy or the province to pay for it.
During her time on the witness stand at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry, Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady was asked by Tom Williams about potential project benefits.
“We do have Muskrat Falls. There is still Gull Island that is there for potential, but no one is considering now developing Gull Island. There’s nobody looking to develop Gull Island today,” Coady said.
She referred to Gull Island as an opportunity that exists.
The two power generation projects, at Muskrat Falls and Gull Island, were referred to collectively as the Lower Churchill Project by Nalcor Energy at the time of environmental assessment (Muskrat Falls was “phase one,” while Gull Island was “phase two”). The projects went through the environmental assessment process together and were released from further assessment.
Nalcor Energy executive vice-president Gilbert Bennett testified at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry there were suggestions from some members of the Muskrat Falls management team that money should be spent on further early site development at Gull Island, to “support the EA,” with the suggestion the approval could be challenged or expire.
“My view of it was a little different than that, that the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Generation Project has run through the EA process, incorporated both phases of development, and that work on the development had started,” Bennett said. “So, I wasn’t seeing a compelling reason to move forward with expenditures in relation to Gull Island, and given that there’s no immediate plan to develop Gull Island and our environmental assessment documents speak to various combinations of sequence and timing in relation to Gull Island, I consider that to be a future issue and not really a top priority for us as a project team.”
Nalcor Energy confirmed this week there is no spending budgeted for Gull Island this year.
As for any deadline on the environmental approval, before a new environmental assessment would be required, Nalcor Energy said the answer is best supplied by the Department of Environment. The department says there is no expiry date, but any signficant changes to the design of the project could require a new assessment.
(NOTE: Updated to include information from the Department of Environment on any time out of Gull Island's environmental assessment.)