Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli misfires by trivializing price of gas plant fiasco

Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli.Do you know what is the cost equivalent of buying a $2 cup of coffee? It's buying a pair of really inexpensive socks, or a weekday edition of one of Canada's fine newspapers. Or some fancy gum.

Sadly for the Ontario Liberals, a billion-dollar boondoggle involving cancelled gas plants is not the same as a cup of coffee. Even if the comparison seems to make for a choice sound bite.

Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli made the errant comment on Thursday that a pre-election decision to cancel a gas plant in Oakville, Ont., would cost the public about the same as a double-double.

"It's less than a cup of Tim Horton's coffee a year," Chiarelli told reporters about the eventual per-ratepayer price tag.

And it was no accident it was Tim Hortons coffee referenced in Chiarelli's comment. Tim Hortons is the classic Canadian reference evoked by politicians of every stripe to appear folksy and down-to-earth. This time, it was a misfire.

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The comment came after the Ontario Power Authority presented the justice committee with a per-hydro-ratepayer cost estimate for the $635 million cancellation. The OPA estimated that the cost would eventually account for a $2.01 annual increase on energy bills.

The Canadian Press points out, however, that the OPA did not use the higher $810 million cost estimate suggested by Ontario's auditor general, and did not include a $40 million "sunk cost" that will be covered by Ontario taxpayers, not hydro ratepayers.

And as Wind Concerns Ontario points out, the numbers still may not work out. If the $2.01 is charged to 4.9 million hydro ratepayers for the next 20 years, it accounts for a $197 million recovery.

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But math a calculations aside, there is a problem with Chiarelli's "coffee" comment. People like having enough money to buy a cup of coffee. They like connecting with politicians over their love of Tim Hortons, not being told it's no big deal if they can't afford to go there.

Another problem? The gas plant scandal has left people pretty testy about energy costs and government spending. His comments have allowed the Ontario PCs to accuse the government of laughing off the wasted money.

The whole affair also underlines the troubles with Ontario's long-term energy plan, announced earlier this week. Namely, that electricity costs will continue to rise.

In short, the next time a politicians evokes the popular "Tim Hortons coffee" reference, it's best to be in the context of money saved, not money wasted.

It’s just folksier that way.

(Photo courtesy The Canadian Press)

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