We have long heard it said that “not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” That’s a saying that the Alberta Utilities Commission would be wise to heed as it decides whether oral arguments will be permitted to be made into the public review of SNC Lavalin’s proposed $3.2-billion sale of its transmission line operator, AltaLink, to U.S. giant Berkshire Hathaway Energy.
On Friday, the AUC heard arguments for oral hearings from ATCO Electric and Joe Anglin, who appeared as a private citizen, but is an MLA with the Wildrose Party and was instrumental in exposing and causing the demise of the now-defunct Alberta Energy Utilities Board, which was scandalously caught spying on rural landowners opposed to a proposed transmission line project running through their land.
The AUC also heard arguments in opposition to holding an open, oral public hearing from AltaLink, various arms of SNC Lavalin (the corruption-plagued Quebec-based company that owns AltaLink) and Berkshire Hathaway (also known as MidAmerican Alberta Canada Holdings, or MC Holdings), which is owned by famous U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett. There was also a bizarre submission by Alberta’s Utilities Consumer Advocate, which basically said whatever the commission decides is fine with them. Why the UCA, which is funded by consumers, even bothered to show up, is a mystery, unless of course, fence sitting is some kind of a fetish.
Loyola Keough, the lawyer for ATCO, argued that unless an oral public hearing is held, it would be impossible for cross examination or follow up questions to be asked of Berkshire Hathaway, which, if the sale goes through, would operate 80 per cent of Alberta’s transmission lines — something many argue constitutes critical infrastructure and should not be sold to a foreign entity, regardless of how benign or competent.
“We also have questions remaining regarding how the new owners will deal with the recovery of the huge premium paid over net book value for the assets acquired,” Keough told commission chair Willie Grieve.
In light of the fact that AUC rules will not allow the recouping of that money through rate increases, Keough asked some questions that all Albertans have a right to hear answered by Berkshire Hathaway or AltaLink in a public oral hearing.
“Ask yourself, will the purchaser eat it?” asked Keough of the overpayment for the asset. “That is probably not a sound business proposition. Will the purchaser seek to keep any and all cost savings from any synergies that occur…? Will the purchaser seek to reduce service and hence costs in an attempt to recover these monies?”
Those are all vital questions that need to be answered verbally, and not through some legal document stored in the bowels of the AUC website.
As Anglin said: “A company of this magnitude, of this size, does not leave $600 million. . . $700 million on the table. They don’t. Everybody knows that. We don’t know how they’re going to get it into the rate base,” Anglin said. “We would like to know.”