Six-year-old accounting change adding millions to cost of early Belledune closure

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Six-year-old accounting change adding millions to cost of early Belledune closure
© Jacques Poitras/CBC Belledune was supposed to be fully paid for by 2028. But N.B. Power changed that to 2040, despite warnings it would be stuck with a huge bill if coal was outlawed by the federal government.

Severe financial consequences facing N.B. Power over a requirement to shut the Belledune coal-fired generating station by 2030 are being aggravated by a controversial accounting decision the utility made years ago to slow down retirement of debt tied to the plant.

Last week, the federal government formally announced it was rejecting a New Brunswick government request that N.B. Power be allowed to operate Belledune until 2040, 10 years past a national deadline forbidding the generation of electricity using coal. 

It’s a decision the utility has said will cost it up to $1.2 billion in financing and new energy expenses, and last week Premier Blaine Higgs said that could force the utility to look for up to $280 million a year more from its in-province customers to maintain service.

“Without Belledune, we could have electricity rates that go up 15 or 20 per cent,” said Higgs Friday.

Part of that enormous price tag is linked to unretired debt from the original construction of Belledune.

That debt was supposed to be eliminated prior to 2030, but won’t be because of an accounting change the utility made several years ago under then-CEO Gaëtan Thomas.

Six-year-old accounting change adding millions to cost of early Belledune closure
© CBC Former N.B. Power CEO Gaëtan Thomas announced the utility made a $12-million profit in the 2016 fiscal year. It had been an $8-million loss until the utility made a controversial accounting change to slow down the pace at which it retired the debt on two plants, including Belledune.

Plant initially on schedule to retire debt by 2028

Belledune opened in December 1993 after several years of construction, at a final cost of $1.17 billion.

That expense was to be depreciated, or fully settled, over 35 years and was on schedule to be retired in 2028, until the utility suddenly changed course in 2016.

With only 12 years to go until Belledune was fully paid off, the utility conducted an assessment of the plant’s physical condition, determined it could operate until December 2040, and added 12 more years to its accounting life and depreciation retirement schedule.  

The change at Belledune, and a similar one made at Saint John’s Coleson Cove oil-fired generating  station, instantly saved N.B. Power $19.8 million per year in finance charges on the two plants at a time the utility’s finances were struggling.   

In the 2016 fiscal year the accounting manoeuver suddenly turned what was going to be an $8-million loss at the utility into a profit. That allowed Thomas to announce $12 million in net earnings for the year.

But it also pushed Belledune’s debt retirement from 2028 to 2040, a move critics warned at the time would saddle the utility with a steep bill if Belledune was forced to close in 2030.

U.S.-based utility expert Robert Knecht argued at N.B. Power rate hearings held by the Energy and Utilities Board in 2017 that slowing down depreciation at both Belledune and Coleson Cove was a poor idea.

Knecht, who was hired by New Brunswick public intervener Heather Black to evaluate N.B. Power’s budget numbers, said that given federal government plans announced in late 2016 to impose carbon taxes and phase out coal, the utility could not bank on either generating station surviving until 2040.

“Given the large uncertainties associated with the recently adopted policy framework, I recommend that the proposed change in depreciation lives be deferred until such time as the economic and legal implications of the new framework for the long-term viability of these facilities is understood,” Knecht said in his written evidence at the hearing.

Six-year-old accounting change adding millions to cost of early Belledune closure
© Jacques Poitras/CBC News file photo N.B. Power claims closing the thermal generating station in Belledune in 2030, 10 years earlier than it had hoped, will cost it up to $1.2 billion.

Former senior N.B. Power executive Bill Marshall agreed with Knecht, and showed up at a public hearing sponsored by the EUB as part of those hearings to say so.

“I think that the amount of uncertainty there is around the carbon future outgoing, this is not the time to change the lives of those power plants,” said Marshall.  

At the time of the accounting change, N.B. Power still had $440 million tied up in Belledune.

Instead of eliminating that by 2028, the new plan was to shave the amount down to $200 million by 2028 and use the following dozen years to retire the rest.

Stretching Belledune’s accounting life cut depreciation expenses and boosted the utility’s bottom line in the short term, but if Ottawa stuck to its 2030 deadline on using coal the change promised a big bill for unretired debt at the plant down the road.

EUB board member Michael Costello was baffled by the move.

“Extending the life of a coal-fired facility, does it just not strike you as kind of odd in this day and age with what we are heading into,” asked Costello.  

N.B. Power argued the move met accounting standards and was appropriate given there was a chance it might be able to operate Belledune until 2040 if it could secure a so-called equivalency agreement.

The utility was hoping Ottawa would allow it to reduce Belledune’s annual output of emissions in exchange for spreading them over a longer period of time. It told the 2017 hearing that until it received a firm rejection, it would account for Belledune as being viable until 2040.

“So given that we don’t know the what, when or how, this is the best information that we have,” N.B. Power senior vice-president Lori Clark said.

The EUB eventually approved the accounting change and, since the 2016 fiscal year, N.B. Power has saved itself $91.7 million in depreciation charges by slowing the retirement of Belledune’s debt. But those amounts didn’t go away. They are still owed and now due much sooner than the utility planned on.

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