Myriad electrical changes spark fears

These are shocking days for Yukoners. Just this week, more than $15 million of public money was committed to extend the territory’s electrical…

These are shocking days for Yukoners.

Just this week, more than $15 million of public money was committed to extend the territory’s electrical grid to a place with few customers — other than a copper mine hoping for cheap power.

And while that happened, the utility board charged with protecting the public interest is in the throes of upheaval.

On Monday, the Yukon Energy Corporation announced a $450,000 contract was awarded to an Ontario company for pre-design work on the proposed Carmacks-to-Pelly Crossing grid extension.

The announcement came despite a pending review of a power purchase agreement between YEC and Sherwood Copper, owner of the Minto copper mine near Pelly, by the Yukon Utilities Board.

The move also appears to fly in the face of a pending review by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment board and an upcoming dedicated review of the entire Carmacks-to-Stewart Crossing grid extension proposal by the utilities board.

And that all happened on Monday.

At the speed of an electron, here then is a whirlwind synopsis of this week’s electrical developments:

Yukon government pledges

$10 million to transmission line

On Tuesday, the Yukon Party government committed $10 million to the still-unapproved first phase of the Carmacks-to-Stewart Crossing electrical grid extension, which will end at Pelly Crossing.

The spending is aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, said Premier Dennis Fentie.

“The Yukon government is committed to the long-term efficiency and reliability of the territory’s hydroelectric system, as part of our climate change strategy,” said Fentie in a release.

But both opposition parties denounced Fentie’s decision as a thinly veiled subsidy to the mining industry that is comparatively light on real climate change.

“If that’s his only argument it’s pretty damn weak,” said New Democrat leader Todd Hardy. “It indicates that Mr. Fentie still doesn’t understand the environment and the changes that are necessary.

“He’s chasing after mega projects, using the latest green movement as an excuse to meet YEC requests. He’s pre-announcing commitments of money and trying to wrap it in the green flag to justify the expenditure.

“I think the impact is very minor with regards to the amount of money that’s being invested,” said Hardy,

There are many small-scale programs to address climate change that would cost less and do more, he added.

The ‘more-with-less’ argument is echoed by Liberal MLA Gary McRobb.

“If the government really wants to tackle climate change, it will help people help themselves,” said McRobb.

Though the transmission line is a potential boon for the Yukon electrical system, “it has nothing to do with climate change and is all about infrastructure and obviously, assisting the mining industry,” he said.

Announcing the spending before a final approval for the project has been given also raises questions, said McRobb.

But the Liberals aren’t against the grid extension in principle, he stressed.

Instead, they want to see it in the context of the coming 2007-2008 Yukon budget to make sure it hasn’t spelled cuts in other areas.

“What if there’s no increase in social assistance rates, to child care, because there’s no money in the budget? And what if there’s a lack for other climate-change options, like helping people use less energy in their homes and for transportation?”

The Yukon Utilities Board can only approve the Carmacks-to-Stewart Crossing extension in an upcoming hearing if it is proven to not have an impact on electricity rates, explained McRobb.

Tuesday’s $10-million commitment likely means it will clear that threshold, he said.

Fentie refused to be interviewed.

New turbine to be built through ecoTrust money

In the same climate change vein, the $5-million share the Yukon is receiving from Ottawa’s $1.5-billion ecoTrust will create more electricity.

Last Friday, the Yukon government announced the money will be used to build a third turbine at the Aishihik Lake hydroelectric station.

The project is expected to reduce the need to use diesel generators during peak loads and lower the Yukon’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 3,800 tonnes, said a government release.

But no timeline for the reductions was given.

Fentie refused an interview.

Florence appointed,

Morris retires

The Yukon government appointed Malcolm Florence to the Yukon Utilities Board on March 27.

And four days later, longtime board chair Brian Morris submitted his resignation due to personal reasons.

The changes come at a time when the board is reviewing a power-purchase agreement between YEC and Sherwood Copper, as well as preparing for a comprehensive review of the project, which YEC applied for on Tuesday.

Critics fear the changes could compromise the entire process.

“They’re pulling things out of the hat at the last minute,” said Peter Percival, an energy watchdog and former chair of the utilities’ board. “It’s very disturbing that they’d even consider this.”

Percival has no problem with Florence being appointed to the board — but he does object to him jumping into deliberations on the power-purchase agreement, he said.

“You’re supposed to be involved in the whole process if you’re going to make a decision on the final outcome,” said Percival. “He’s not up to speed.”

Florence is filling a vacancy the board has had for several years, said spokesperson Deana Lemke.

The board is currently reviewing whether Florence will be involved in the upcoming decision on the power-purchase agreement, she said.

That review is required by the end of April.

Process in danger, say critics

With government spending arriving for the Carmacks-to-Stewart grid project before a final approval, the process overseeing the public interest on electrical grid developments is being put under pressure, say critics.

 “It pressures the process and confuses the process, and the process is complicated enough as it is,” said McRobb.

“With all these new dynamics folding in, the participants are having to deal with changing circumstances midway through their arguments,” he said.