For me, it was the silence that spoke most loudly last week.
On Thursday, the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board “approved significant rate increases for customers of the province’s monopoly power company, in apparent defiance of the provincial government,” as Globe and Mail reporter Matthew McClearn put it.
You will remember — how can you forget? — Premier Tim Houston’s own line-in-the-oil defiance last fall.
The UARB had been in the middle of year-long hearings on an application from Nova Scotia Power. The company had initially sought to increase electricity rates by 5.2 percent in each of 2023 and 2024. If you’re counting, that would have been a total of 10.4 percent over just two years.
10.4 percent… Hold that thought.
And then came the Ukraine war, oil price sticker shock, more electricity rate hikes ahead…
On October 19, 2022, the Houston government jumped into the fray, bypassing the UARB and introducing Bill 212 to legislatively limit any non-fuel increase in power rates to 1.8 percent per year for the next two years.
Non-fuel. Hold that thought too.
“We’ll do whatever is necessary in any form, in any place, to protect Nova Scotians,” Pretend Populist Houston declared at the time. “My obligation is to Nova Scotians. That’s where my obligation will always remain.”
Hold that one too.
For the next few months, Nova Scotia Power, our privately owned public utility and its richer-than-rich (thanks to its provincial power monopoly) parent Emera duked it out with the premier in the public prints. Ready Kilowatt whinged and whined and threatened; Pretend Populist Politician blustered and bulldozed and threatened right back.
Then, in late November, Nova Scotia Power announced it had reached a settlement agreement with advocates representing consumers, businesses, an environmental group and low-income people. That deal would see power rates increase almost 14 percent over the next two years.
Houston immediately took pen in hand to “protect ratepayers,” demanding “respectfully” that “the UARB set the agreement aside and reach its own conclusion on the aforementioned application… It is our shared responsibility to protect ratepayers and I can’t state strongly enough how concerned I am that the agreement before you does not do that.”
Fast forward again to last Thursday, February 2nd. The Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board officially approved the nearly 14 percent rate hike the parties had signed off on two months earlier. The UARB…
… issued a 203-page decision ratifying most of the elements in a settlement agreement reached between Nova Scotia Power and customer groups after Houston’s government legislated a rate, spending and profit cap on the utility in November.
The board said approval was in the public interest and the increase is “reasonable and appropriate.”
“The board cannot simply disallow N.S. Power’s reasonable costs to make rates more affordable. These principles ensure fair rates and the financial health of a utility so it can continue to invest in the system providing services to its customers,” the three-member panel wrote.
“While the board can (and has) disallowed costs found to be imprudent or unreasonable, absent such a finding, N.S. Power’s costs must be reflected in the rates.”
Remember that 10.4 percent over two years. It’s now 13.9 percent per year for two years.
Remember “whatever is necessary in any form, in any place, to protect Nova Scotians.”
By the way, that almost 14 percent, notes my colleague, Jennifer Henderson, is just the tiniest tip of a very big iceberg of rate increases ahead.
Take the power rate increases approved Thursday by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board with a big grain of salt.
The increases of 6.9 percent this year followed by 6.9 percent next year might seem hard to swallow but it’s likely rates could be increased even more than that a year from now.
That’s because the rates don’t include hundreds of millions of dollars in projected fuel costs that could be incurred over the next two years, as well as $100 million in deferred fuel costs for 2022 which just ended.
Nova Scotia Power has forecast fuel costs in the range of $700 million for 2023 and for 2024. Rate hikes announced yesterday won’t cover nearly that amount, and some of the difference (nobody can predict how much) may have to be recovered through higher power rates next year and the year after.
And how did Premier Houston respond to the regulator’s outright defiance?
The Houston government’s official muted response didn’t even come from Houston himself but from his minister of natural resources and renewables. Tony Rushton told reporters…
… the UARB decision was not what the government wanted, but he did not indicate the government has any plans to bring forward legislation to overturn it.
“We’re disappointed by the decision today. We’ve always been very clear that we were standing by ratepayers right from the get-go, but we also respect the independent body of the UARB and their decision today.”
I was curious to know why Houston himself was a no-show for what could have been a Caped Crusader curtain call. So, I asked Jennifer Robertson, who covers such things for the Examiner, why the premier hadn’t been available during Thursday’s post-cabinet scrum? She asked his office for an explanation. The answer:
Premier Houston is in Ottawa this week meeting with foreign ambassadors regarding expanded trade and promoting film and television production in Nova Scotia. He will be presenting to European Union heads of mission about Nova Scotia’s renewable energy opportunities, meeting with Minister Wilkinson, and attending a roundtable on energy.
OK. Fair enough. Our premier’s a busy guy. And all of the above seem suitably worthy and undoubtedly time-consuming.
But… really? The premier didn’t have time to even issue his own defiant statement condemning the decision and declaring that the UARB’s affront to the will of the people would not be allowed to stand? No threats to appeal to the courts, introduce more legislation, nationalize the power company?
Perhaps the premier will have more to say in the days to come.
But the truth was that Houston’s huffing harrumphing was never about protecting Nova Scotians from inevitable increases in electricity rates. It was about creating the impression that his government was doing everything it could to prevent them. Which, in the end, will be almost nothing.
It’s time for the premier to stop legislation as performance and get on with the business of protecting our most vulnerable citizens from unaffordable power rate increases. It’s not the same thing.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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