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Power Corporation has new board chair
Former Industry minister Brendan Bell talks goals for NWT

Tim Edwards
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, December 16, 2010

NWT - Big infrastructure projects, such as the Taltson Hydro expansion, were on the mind of the new chair of the Northwest Territories Power Corporation as he neared the end of his first week on the job.

"I think there are some things we can do in terms of efficiencies to bring costs down, but ... the big game-changers ultimately are projects like this Taltson project," said Brendan Bell, a former energy minister for the NWT who took over as the corporations' board chair.

There has been dispute on whether the territory's mines will plug into the Taltson River hydroelectric site and back the upgrades which will bump its energy production up to high as 56 megawatts, possibly tripling the current 18 megawatts it produces.

However, Bell said "the talks have really ramped up in earnest."

Before John Duncan, minister of Indian Northern Affairs, rejected the Taltson proposal this week until a firm route for powerlines can be chosen, Bell said the corporation needs to find out soon whether or not the mines will be on board because the longer this sits around, the fewer diamonds will be left in the ground for the mines to dig out with Taltson energy.

"I think in the next three to six months we need to know that we have a project and we need to have the details largely wrapped up," said Bell.

He said current rates are a "disincentive for industry" and the end-goal is to bring down rates for consumers, but to do this there needs to be more infrastructure.

"If we can lever legacy infrastructure out of the mines, if there's a pipeline project and we're able to attach some hydro infrastructure to that, wonderful," said Bell.

"Although our rates are very, very high, imagine what they would be without the development of Pine Point (Mine), without the developments in the North Slave that ultimately were underpinned by mines."

The Taltson dam was originally built in 1966 to supply hydroelectric power to the now-defunct Pine Point lead and zinc mine. The corporation now hopes the Ekati, Snap Lake, and Diavik diamond mines will sign on as big customers, and in doing so make the project financially feasible.

"We need to get those commitments from the mines and we need to take that to the banks and find out if that's good enough," said Bell. "If we find out that's not good enough to finance the project, we need a backstop from government or some other (source)."

Another issue Bell will have to face is the proposal from Alberta-based energy company ATCO for the two corporations to merge.

"I'm just early in my briefings (and) I don't know where that sits today. I'm of the view, with unsolicited proposals every one of them should be considered," said Bell, adding that he was sure it would come up in additional meetings with the board he had scheduled for this week.

Bell served two terms as the MLA for Yellowknife South before making a run at federal politics in the 2008 election. He is no longer the Conservative candidate for the Western Arctic, and said it was no easy choice but with a minority government it's impossible to predict when he'd be called upon to run again, and this job appealed to him.

The Conservative riding association for the Western Arctic has about 200 members throughout the NWT, according to association president Doug Witty. So far, no potential candidates have stepped up to replace Bell.

"We're certainly going to be actively talking to people and looking for people who have an interest in the process," said Witty.

Bell said he doesn't want to "close doors" on the political game, as he has interest in jumping back in at some point in the future.

"In these assignments you serve at the pleasure of the premier, at the pleasure of the minister - I'm here for as long as the government of the day will have me," said Bell.

Bell was under scrutiny late last year when Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley questioned Premier Floyd Roland's decision to award Bell consulting contracts three months after he had left office as MLA for which he was ultimately paid a total of $124,000. The information on what Bell will be paid for the part-time position at power corp. wasn't available at press time.

When contacted about Bell's new appointment, Bromley said this is a "completely different" situation, and Bell has a lot of experience with the energy sector.

He said the controversy over the contract was a problem with the way government is allowed to award contracts.

"He wasn't behaving inappropriately; the government was behaving inappropriately," said Bromley.

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