Monday is Peter Gurnham’s last day as the chair of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (UARB). At age 69, he is retiring from a very big job: decisions by the UARB affect what consumers pay for electricity, natural gas, gasoline, water, bridge tolls, car insurance, and payday loans. It’s also the body responsible for licensing buses and hearing municipal planning appeals, and I’ve probably missed a few things.
Gurnham, a lawyer who worked at Cox & Palmer prior to joining the UARB 19 years ago, says he hopes he will be remembered for making the board’s decision-making process “more transparent” and “improving customer service” to the public.
It was Gurnham who pushed to establish both a consumer advocate and a small business advocate. Under his leadership, the UARB was one of the first regulators in the country to set up a system where all evidence at public hearings and decisions can be accessed online through the UARB’s website…admittedly, it’s often pretty geeky stuff. Public hearings can now be watched online and the Board’s eight members have taken courses in “plain language” to help explain their written decisions.
The irony is that the media (ourselves included) now pay less attention to regulatory proceedings than when the UARB was pretty much a closed shop. There are easier stories to pursue and tell and reporters’ attention is often distracted by “breaking news” or the flavour of the month.
The Houston government has yet to appoint a replacement for Gurnham. Asked what he thinks will be the biggest challenge for his successor and Nova Scotians in general, Gurnham predicted it will be the impact of government decisions to close coal-fired power plants and move to 80% renewable energy by 2030.
“I think that the federal government is at least amenable to discussing (financial) assistance to getting us off coal,” said Gurnham. “To the extent that happens, that will be a relief to ratepayers. But those coal plants were approved by this board and considered prudent expenditures at the time and Nova Scotia Power is entitled to be paid for those prudent expenditures by collecting the depreciation on those coal plants. So absent some federal or provincial government assistance, there will be an added cost to ratepayers.”
Gurnham said the role of the provincial government is to make policy decisions. Those decisions affect companies such as Nova Scotia Power, Heritage Gas, Irving Oil, and Maritime Bus. The UARB is independent of government but its role is to determine the regulations companies must follow in line with approximately 38 statutes. The UARB operates on a budget of $6.3 million a year, $2.1 million paid by the public, and the rest coming from industry. The Board has 30 staff and 8 members. The Chair earned $207,000 a year.
In his previous life as a lawyer, Gurnham appeared frequently before the UARB representing Nova Scotia Power. Asked if that could taint or place him in a conflict- of -interest position when dealing with rate hike requests from a former client, Gurnham denied that was ever an issue. He said that not only did being Nova Scotia Power’s lawyer provide him with both experience and insight, but also for his first three years as a board member he was automatically excluded from any proceeding with any connection to Nova Scotia Power.
Pressed about why the UARB has allowed the shareholders of an electrical monopoly to earn an average profit of 9% year after year, Gurnham defends the Board this way:
Nova Scotia Power’s rate of return is equivalent to TransCanada Pipeline and the utilities in Alberta. It’s lower than Newfoundland Light and Power. And because 40% of the utility is financed by shareholder’s capital, you have to provide a rate of return or investors will invest somewhere else.
He also pointed out that while the UARB has no authority at all over Nova Scotia Power’s parent company Emera and the gazillion dollar salaries it pays its executives, what a lot of Nova Scotians may not know is that the Public Utilities Act limits the pay packets for Nova Scotia Power executives to 100% of what the top deputy minister in Nova Scotia makes.
His toughest assignment? “The original decision on the Maritime Link, which had to be taken within six months.” Gurnham said subsequent decisions due to the delay of power flowing from Muskrat Falls have dragged out the process but reports filed with the regulator for the month of January show the province has finally received the entire Nova Scotia Block equivalent to 10% of the grid’s energy needs.
Those who have spent quality time with Gurnham in a hearing room will miss his dry wit and courteous manner. Gurnham said he has enjoyed his work as the province’s top regulator and is now looking forward to spending time being a grandfather. He has also taken a part-time gig on the board of a company called Canadian Light Source that is regulated by the Nuclear Safety Commission.