Comply with a deadline from the Speaker to release thousands of confidential documents about the costly cancellation of an Oakville power plant, or risk a historic ruling of contempt by the opposition-dominated Legislature. Bentley tried to forestall the attack by releasing a motherlode of material on an energy mess of the government’s own making:
Two weeks ago, the Speaker found that Bentley could no longer withhold documents on the cancellation and set the clock ticking.
When he awoke at 5 a.m. Monday, Bentley perhaps hoped he could avoid his public hanging through last-minute deal making and disclosure. By 9 a.m. he had approved a final agreement that will cost the government at least $ 40 million in direct costs; at noon he dumped the documents, beating his deadline.
Even if he dodges this bullet, Bentley has been wounded after a few miserable months as the minister on the firing line. His first mission, after getting the energy portfolio late last year, was to approve roughly $ 200 million in costs for another power plant cancelled during the 2011 election campaign by McGuinty (to save yet more Liberal seats).
The opposition decries all these cancellations as scandalous, contemptible and wasteful. What they don’t say — and what we as taxpayers must own up to — is that no one is learning lessons from these perennial unpluggings.
We the people elect politicians to generate power that satisfies the endless appetites of electricity consumers — the people. Then we the people — in places like Oakville and Mississauga — complain about power plants that go up in our neighbourhoods.
Opposition politicians join in the chorus, and the NIMBY people are pleased. On cue, the opposition then squawks about the cost of paying off the builders.
Is there a better way? I asked the embattled, bleary-eyed Bentley what lessons he has learned after inheriting an energy mess that was not, in fairness, generated by him.
Even the second-guessers in the opposition would agree.
But history shows there is always pressure after the fact. And the sad fact is the McGuinty Liberals did get it right the first time. The best place for a cleaner gas-fired power plant in the western GTA would have been the old coal-fired Lakeview Generation Station in Mississauga, which had all the essentials: ample space, setbacks, transmission lines and proximity to consumers.
But in 2008 the McGuinty government bowed to NIMBYism from Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion. The loss of their Lakeview location led to the selection of second-best sites in Oakville and Mississauga — with cascading NIMBYism that culminated in all these costly cancellations.
Another lesson: The Liberals foolishly borrowed from old-fashioned Tory ideology by turning solely to the private sector for new gas-fired power plants — to the exclusion of publicly owned OPG. The goal was to depoliticize power generation and make it more businesslike. The result is neither more businesslike nor less political — merely privatized and more profitable, with all of us paying the price when government moves the goalposts.
In the old days, when politicians meddled in relocating power plants, OPG did as it was told. Now, the Liberals must negotiate with private firms that demand compensation for future, foregone profits over cancelled plants.
Every time the government needs to buy them off, it asks OPG to sell off its land holdings to an aggrieved private competitor. That’s an odd way to run a publicly owned utility — reducing it to the role of landlord rather than power generator.
Bentley told me he remains “a big supporter of public ownership,” and that as energy minister he sees OPG playing a central role in power generation.