HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's energy minister is expressing fresh reservations about the $1.5-billion Maritime Link project ahead of a crucial round of public hearings.
Andrew Younger says he shares some of the misgivings held by advocates who speak for the province's consumers and small businesses.
"We're no different than some of the other interveners," he said in an interview. "I recognize that ... some of the other interveners have concerns about ratepayers, and that's my primary concern as well."
Halifax-based energy company Emera Inc. (TSX:EMA) wants to build a subsea cable to Newfoundland, which would allow Emera subsidiary Nova Scotia Power to buy energy from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric plant, under construction in Labrador.
If the project is approved, Nova Scotia ratepayers would foot the bill for the Maritime Link.
Younger said he was reluctant to reveal what worries him about the latest proposal from Emera, which was reworked after the province's energy regulator said in July it wouldn't endorse the project unless Emera met a list of conditions.
The minister, a vocal critic of the project when he was on the Opposition benches, said government lawyers will have plenty of questions for Emera when the hearings start Thursday.
He said the province's new Liberal government will take a position based on what it hears, then deliver its assessment during closing statements on Friday or Monday. Then it will be up to the independent Utility and Review Board to decide if the project is in the best interest of ratepayers.
When he was an opposition critic, Younger described the original agreement — signed by Emera and Nalcor, Newfoundland and Labrador's Crown-owned energy company — as "misguided and expensive."
He criticized the former NDP government's support for the project, saying the New Democrats were ignoring rising costs, allowing a lack of transparency and accepting that Nova Scotians wouldn't own the link when the agreement expired.
More recently, the province's consumer and small business advocates have said the revamped agreement doesn't meet some of the board's conditions, including a requirement for guaranteed access to enough market-priced electricity to meet the province's long-term needs.
When asked if he shared those concerns, Younger deferred to the board.
"It comes down to a question of how you interpret the board's (July) decision," he said.
The board's own consultants have endorsed the agreement, having concluded that enough market-priced energy will be available because both Nalcor and Emera have committed to building more generating capacity if there are shortfalls.
However, critics have also suggested there are added costs for ratepayers in the new agreement — a concern dismissed by the board's consultants.
Bill Black, an outspoken business leader and former leadership candidate for Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservatives, has said the latest agreement "creates risk for Nova Scotian ratepayers, increases the potential cost and fails to provide the commitment required by the board."
Black said in a submission to the board that Nova Scotia's ability to buy electricity from Muskrat Falls could be short-circuited if the demand for power from either province grows faster than expected.
Todd McDonald, a commodities trader who speaks for the Nova Scotia Lower Power Rates Alliance, said he is particularly concerned by a clause that he believes could leave Nova Scotia competing with other provinces to buy increasingly expensive power from Muskrat Falls.
"I can't possibly understand how this could get passed," he said in an interview.
The board's consultants concluded otherwise, saying Emera has secured the right to buy electricity ahead of anyone else.