NS Power rate increase: just more corporate obfuscation, jiggery-pokery and sleight of hand

Nova Scotia Power doesn’t want you to know how much it pays its executives, or why. There are lots of things the utility doesn’t want you to know. But it still wants more of your money.

Two guys on a power pole in an ad forNSP
Nova Scotia Power… not exactly as claimed (Facebook)

You might imagine that somewhere in its controversial, hydro-damn-blocking 3,100-page(!) application for an electricity rate increase, Nova Scotia Power would have found even a few short paragraphs to explain how it had multiplied, divided, compared and calibrated to calculate — and justify — the compensation for its corporate executives.

You would imagine wrong.

In fact, far from explaining itself, the privately-owned public utility — the same one that is expecting us to pony up 10 per cent more for our electricity over the next three years —believes we have no right to know about such matters, including even how much most of those executives are actually paid.

“Good human resource practices and privacy legislation require NS Power to protect certain confidential personnel information from disclosure,” the power company informed the province’s Utility and Review Board, which is, in fact, the one charged with deciding such matters. “Information relating to salaries, either individually or in aggregate, that can identify an employee’s salary is board confidential.” [my italics]

What else does the power company claim is subject to this “board-confidential” omerta?

Everything… at least according to NS Power.

Let us tote up some of the items:

  • executive compensation,
  • bonuses,
  • the number and percentage of employees receiving a bonus,
  • outside advice on executive compensation policy,
  • the utility’s government lobbying efforts,
  • the amount NS Power has set aside to cover legal costs in its ongoing dispute with the Canada Revenue Agency,
  • its generic approaches to cybersecurity,
  • hydro dam decommissioning studies and
  • even some court records that are already on the public record for the looking up…

Phew!

Let’s return to the NS Power executives and their compensation for a moment. We already know — thanks to documents that Emera, NSP’s parent company, is required to share — that CEO Peter Gregg pocketed $804,224 last year in “base salary, share awards, share options incentives, pension value and perks.”

We don’t have even that much information for eight other senior power company executives.

There are government-imposed limits for overall executive compensation at the provincially regulated utility, which are based on the average salary of a provincial deputy minister. It’s currently set at $2.25 million — about $250,000 each for NSP’s nine top executives — but that’s meaningless because the company then stuffs their pay envelopes with undisclosed top-ups from parent company Emera.

Officially, in fact, Gregg’s Nova Scotia Power salary in 2021 was “just” $251,797. The other 79 per cent came out of Emera’s coffers.

But wait a minute.

Is Emera really funding all this excess executive compensation out of its own “unrelated” revenues and out of the goodness of its corporate heart?

Or is this just more corporate obfuscation, jiggery-pokery and sleight of hand?

You decide.

“The basis upon which NS Power claims that its executive compensation is reasonable is the existence of the government pay plan cap,” the utility declares flatly, once again in its ex cathedra brook-no-disagreement voice of god.

But on what basis did the company decide how much its executives should really earn?

The company knows. But we can’t.

NS Power hired Grant Thornton to come up with numbers for executive compensation as part of its rate application, but the company is demanding the utility and review board keep that information confidential even from intervenors at the rate hearings even though those intervenors have already had to agree to confidentiality.

NS Power also hired Mercer Consulting to prepare two reports that supposedly explained how the utility’s executive pay packages compared to others in the industry.

Can we at least those?

Nope.

The company is willing to release “the market comparable aggregate amount of total direct compensation that is included in the Mercer Reports” because it claims that number demonstrates “the compensation included in the General Rate Application is below market.”

Well, thanks for … nothing much.

The power company claims the rest of those reports — and everything else it doesn’t want us to know — involves commercially sensitive information or third-party proprietary information.

Shall we examine that further?

Nancy Rubin, a lawyer who represents large industrial power users, points out that among the “commercial information” NS Power claims is confidential is the name of the supplier of natural gas contract that expired a dozen years ago.

“It is unclear what ‘commercial value’ may be associated with this long-expired contract,” she wrote. “In any event” — avert your eyes to avoid your brain being contaminated with privileged commercially sensitive information — “the identity of Shell, as the counterparty, has been in the public domain for decades.”

If you want to know what’s in those “confidential” court notices concerning NSP’s legal fight with the taxman, she adds, all you have to do is ask. “These documents are already in the public domain, and anyone may obtain a copy on request.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Rubin isn’t the only intervenor to object to the utility’s efforts to suffocate almost the entire process under a confidentiality blanket.

“The impact of NS Power’s claimed confidentiality is clear,” wrote Consumer Advocate Bill Mahody, who represents the rest of this in these proceedings. “Ratepayers are being prevented from understanding the basis upon which NS Power claims that its executive compensation is reasonable.” Without that information, he adds, “ratepayers are left with no basis to challenge the overall reasonableness of the expense.”

That, it seems, is NS Power’s intent.

In its response to Mahody’s arguments, the power company’s senior regulatory lawyer replied that “providing the [consumer advocate] with access to further information regarding expenses that are not proposed for inclusion in rates does not benefit this proceeding in any way. In fact, NS Power believes it would unnecessarily and inappropriately distract from the many relevant issues that are properly before the board.”

Relevant issues? Like how much we should have to pay for electricity?

A hearing on NS Power’s application for a rate increase is scheduled for September.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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