The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Deja Vu: The Manitoba Hydro movie starring Greg Selinger as himself

Manitoba Hydro is running scared.

This past week they have shown they will go to any extent---from breaching court orders to openly violating the Whistleblower Act---to silence a former consultant who has seen from the inside how they work.

Think back.
You've seen this movie before---starring Shermie Kreiner and Bernie Bellan in leading roles.
It was called Crocus, the Scandal.

- The principals of the Crocus Investment Fund strutted across this province like Medieval princes. Throwing around millions in an investment-starved desert, they too had plans to remodel Manitoba--- into a socialist paradise. And they would brook no opposition. They used their financial power to crush anyone who dared to challenge their exalted position.

- Crocus intimidated whistleblower Bernie Bellan into silence through threats of lawsuits and humiliated politician John Loewen by forcing him to eat crow in public and stop asking questions about Crocus business.

- They bitchslapped Opposition leader Stu Murray into ending all criticism of the fund and when Industry Minister Maryann Mihychuk tried to rein them in, they patted her on the head, told her to go back to her knitting, and informed her office they had approval for their actions from a "higher authority."

They were, they thought, above the law.

- Then they made a big mistake---they hired an honest man. Taking one look at the books, he blanched, then ran to the Manitoba Securities Commission.

- Within months, the Ponzi-scheme that Crocus had become turned into a pile of rubble.

In the remake, Manitoba Hydro hires an honest woman. But the "higher authority" reprises his role: none other than Greg Selinger, the dirtiest politician in the province.

In Crocus, the Scandal, he was the Finance Minister with a secret backchannel used by Crocus CEO Sherman Kreiner to address problems that were holding Crocus back, problems like the law.

In Hydro, the Scandal, he's the unelected Premier of the province, giving Hydro CEO Bob Brennan a very public nod and wink to assure him that Hydro's problems will be, ahem, taken care of to Bob's satisfaction. You are, he hinted to Brennan, above the law.

Up to now, Manitoba Hydro's only bete noire has been the Public Utilities Board, their official overseer. And they knew how to deal with the PUB in the past---through indifference. The PUB would huff and puff and demand documents from Hydro, and Bob Brennan would nod and smile and reply 'yeah, sure' and ignore them.

Then the PUB would issue an order for the rate increase Hydro wanted, followed by begging for the information they already asked for, and the pas de deux would start over again.

Not this time.

Bolstered by the Hydro whistleblower's official complaint to the Manitoba Ombudsman, the PUB has stiffened its spine. Feigned cooperation is over, and compliance is in. Manitoba Hydro has finally coughed up internal risk reports that the PUB asked for in 2008.
And they're expecting a rough ride when the PUB holds hearings in June on the next rate increase Hydro wants.

And no wonder.

Last spring, the PUB outlined its concerns about Manitoba Hydro (MANITOBA Order No. 32/09).

The revelations from the Hydro whistleblower will have to be hair-raising to top the nightmare scenario the PUB has painted of Hydro's plans:

The Manitoba Public Utilities Board says:

*Hydro intends to build power plants, which we won't need ourselves for 15-20 years, to supply electricity to American customers

* Manitoba customers will be subsidizing the power to the U.S. for years after those dams are built because costs will exceed revenue, which, itself, may be seriously overstated.

* Since 2000, Hydro has been selling 115 percent of the hydro power we produce, relying on imports and stored water to make up the difference. Hydro "may be seriously overstating likely export revenues" by assuming sales of 115 percent and "even as high as 120% at times".

* In a drought year we'll have to buy out contracts for non-delivery or import more power but Hydro hasn't budgeted for covering more than a 10 percent shortfall through imports or natural gas generated power.

* The dam building spree will roughly double Manitoba's long-term debt (Hydro's share will rise from $7 billion to $19.4 billion by 2028). And Hydro will be paying more than $1 billion a year in interest. Yes, you read that right. MORE THAN ONE BILLION A YEAR IN INTEREST.

* Hydro says its doable, but the PUB asks how, since Hydro is assuming the Canadian dollar will be trading at 84 cents U.S. (today it's about 10 cents higher) and average export prices for power will have to double in 8 years.

Given that Hydro's last prediction was that global warming taxes would price coal out of the market by 2011, you can understand the PUB's doubt.

But Hydro has an ultimate fallback position, which itself scares the PUB. The Board wrote that "the high-risk components" of Hydro's 20-year plan includes:

*The presumption that domestic rates are available to absorb losses related to droughts, infrastructure failure and/or under-performing export markets.

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