HALIFAX - The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project won't be getting the support of Nova Scotia's new Liberal government unless the province can access more power at cheaper rates, premier-designate Stephen McNeil said Wednesday.
One day after winning a commanding majority government, McNeil said that's the message for his counterpart in Newfoundland and Labrador, Premier Kathy Dunderdale.
"I can be very clear to her that if it's not in the best interests of Nova Scotia ratepayers, then we would not be supportive," McNeil told The Canadian Press.
"Until we see something new, Muskrat Falls is where it is, which is on the drawing board."
McNeil said he agrees with a decision by Nova Scotia's Utility and Review Board that his province needs access to more of the energy from the development at a better price. He said Nova Scotia utility company Emera, which is proposing to build the $1.5-billion Maritime Link that would ship electricity to his province, is free to proceed with it as a private interest.
"I think it makes a lot of sense that if Emera and its shareholders believe this is such a great project, then build it and we'll just buy the energy at a reasonable price," he said.
His comments strike a different tone from one that was set by Darrell Dexter, the former NDP premier of Nova Scotia who lost Tuesday's election. Dexter was a strong supporter of the $7.7-billion project that would transmit power from Labrador to Newfoundland and Cape Breton through subsea links.
Dexter pitched it as a key part of his government's push to use more renewable energy in a province trying to wean itself off coal-fired power plants. He was not available for comment Wednesday.
In St. John's, N.L., Dunderdale said she was not concerned that a change in government in Nova Scotia could derail the project.
"We could never allow ourselves to be this far into a project and have a government come in and scuttle the whole piece," Dunderdale said, adding that the agreement to build Muskrat Falls is between publicly traded firm Emera and Nalcor Energy, Newfoundland and Labrador's Crown power company.
"This project was planned around the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and could it stand on its own merit, only for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and it did and it does. And that is the most important piece of all of this. So if in your wildest dreams you had to come to a place that they were not at the table anymore, this project still makes sense for us."
Dunderdale said her government would continue discussions it has already had with McNeil's Liberals to determine where they stand.
In July, Nova Scotia's Utility and Review Board approved the Maritime Link portion of Muskrat Falls on the condition that Nova Scotia customers receive the best price for surplus electricity based on market conditions — something that Nalcor has not committed to. The board's ruling also allows for the proponents to find another arrangement that would ensure Nova Scotians have access to market-priced energy.
Dunderdale said last month that Nalcor and Emera have come up with a solution that would satisfy the board, but details of that have not yet been made public.
As for his other priorities as he takes the reins of power, McNeil said he would begin following through on his promise to chop the number of district health authorities from 10 to two early in his mandate, though he was not more specific.
During their campaign, the Liberals said such a move would save $13 million that would be put back into frontline patient care.
McNeil acknowledged while there may be public pressure to step down from that commitment, he will stick with his promise.
"Any time you make change, it's difficult," he said. "The system is fragile in many ways, but the status quo is not sustainable."
McNeil said his government will also quickly set the terms of reference for a public inquiry into allegations of abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, an orphanage in Halifax, and will introduce legislation aimed at opening up the province's power grid to regulated competition.
McNeil said his party is working on its transition to power and he couldn't yet specify who would fill key cabinet positions or when the legislature will be recalled this fall.
The Liberals won 33 seats in the 51-seat legislature, while the New Democrats were relegated to third-party status with seven seats. The Progressive Conservatives become the Opposition with 11 members elected.
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