POLITICS

No looming deadlines for decision on Maritime Link: Nova Scotia energy minister

10/29/2013 02:31 EDT | Updated 12/29/2013 05:12 EST
HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's new energy minister says the province's energy regulator is not constrained by any looming deadlines as it considers a complex commercial agreement that has become a linchpin for the proposed $1.5-billion Maritime Link project.

Andrew Younger, sworn in as minister only last week, was responding to calls by Nova Scotia's consumer and small business advocates for more time to study the so-called compliance filing before they have to submit evidence by Friday for public hearings next week.

Younger's department submitted a letter Tuesday to the Utility and Review Board that says the board can establish any time frame it deems appropriate.

"There are no provisions in the Maritime Link Act that put a deadline on the board for making a decision on the compliance filing," Younger said in an interview.

"I wanted that on the record so that the board and the interveners were aware there are no constraints on the part of the Department of Energy or government in terms of how this decision is made."

The board is expected to decide whether to extend the process on Wednesday.

Younger's view stands in contrast to that of Emera Inc. (TSX:EMA), the Nova Scotia energy company behind the plan to build a subsea transmission cable that would ship hydroelectricity from the Muskrat Falls project from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia.

Emera also submitted a letter to the board Tuesday, insisting that a quick decision is necessary because any delay could lead to higher financing and contract costs.

"In establishing the current process ... the board acknowledged the need for an expedited process," says the letter, signed by J. Rene Gallant, Emera's vice-president of legal and regulatory affairs.

"The underlying facts have not changed and delay will be harmful to the projects, both in Nova Scotia and in (Newfoundland and Labrador)."

On Monday, Emera CEO Chris Huskilson said delays could jeopardize federal loan guarantees for both projects, and the company's letter to the board emphasized that concern.

"Any delay in the regulatory process for the Maritime Link Project could ultimately result in a delay in finalizing the financing process, which could in turn result in significantly higher financing costs," the letter says.

"On a financing of this size, even small changes in financing costs can have serious consequences for overall costs, and a significant negative impact on customers."

A spokesperson for the federal Natural Resources Department said there was no deadline for the loan guarantees.

The wrangling over the Maritime Link hearings is important because Nova Scotians recently elected a Liberal majority government partly because the party was harshly critical of what is described as the former NDP government's cozy relationship with Emera and its subsidiary, Nova Scotia Power.

In Opposition, Younger regularly accused the New Democrats of becoming cheerleaders for Emera and its plans to build the Maritime Link, a project that would be largely financed by Nova Scotia ratepayers.

"My view was that the previous administration jumped up and down and made their decisions about the Maritime Link filings before all the evidence was in," Younger said.

"I'm going to do things differently. We're going to look at everybody's evidence and then make a submission at the end of it."

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives issued a statement accusing Younger of being too timid by failing to call for an extention.

"By taking a new, hands-off approach, the Liberals are allowing Emera to get its own way, just like the NDP used to do," said Tory Leader Jamie Baillie.

The NDP have said the Maritime Link is key to the province's goal of using more renewable energy as it tries to wean itself off coal-fired power plants.