The Ontario government’s decision to ditch its plan for wind farms in the Great Lakes seems to have been made all the more awkward by the lobbyist-lubricated relationship the province had developed with the company that wanted to build one of the biggest.
The company was Windstream Energy, which is seeking as much as $568 million in damages on the grounds that the government mistreated it because it’s backed by American money, which would be a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But back when it seemed to be well on its way to building a wind farm in the water off Kingston, Windstream had a lobbyist named Chris Benedetti helping it along. Benedetti is a specialist in energy policy for Sussex Strategy Group (he’s had dozens upon dozens of industry clients, according to the Ontario lobbying registry), and a former federal Liberal staffer.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he promoted the $6,000-a-plate fundraiser that offered intimate conversations with Premier Kathleen Wynne and Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli as its big draw earlier this year. That’s the one that shamed the Liberals into finally pursuing reforms to political fundraising because, though completely legal, it looked so gross when people found out.
We know what politicians get out of such events: A whole lot of money. But now, thanks to the company’s own claims in its case against the government, which rely heavily on evidence from Benedetti himself, we know what Windstream’s lobbyists got before everything fell apart.
For one thing, Windstream got regular updates on the politicians’ whipsawing views on wind farms as they went from thinking they were a pillar of Ontario’s industrial future to worrying they’d be the death of the Liberal government.
We know what politicians get out of such events: A whole lot of money.
For a while in 2010, the government toyed with the idea of a restriction on lake-based wind farms that would have banned them only within five kilometres of shore. Before that was announced publicly, Windstream was already talking with Ministry of Energy people about giving up sections of Lake Ontario near the shore it had sought for its project, in exchange for rights farther out in the lake. Part of the deal was that it would stay out of a wind-industry campaign against the five-kilometre “exclusion zone.”
(The government’s response agrees that they talked about this a lot, though it says no swap was ever guaranteed.)
Toward the end of that year, Liberals were beginning to freak out about losing seats over wind farms in a looming election.
“Windstream, concerned about the possible impact anti-wind opposition might have on its project, proposed to (Ministry of the Environment) officials that the project proceed as a ‘pilot project’ in order to generate scientific data to assist the Ontario government in determining how to proceed with future offshore wind projects,” Windstream’s claim says. The company’s president had a private dinner with the energy minister and two top aides to talk about it, and then followup calls and meetings where the company got encouraging responses, the firm alleges.
(The government agrees that they also talked about this, though again it says nothing was guaranteed.)
When the government changed its mind in early February and decided to ban all wind farms on the lakes indefinitely, Windstream got a heads-up in a conference call before everybody else found out through a news release.
(The government agrees this happened, too, and after officials met with Benedetti.)
“Immediately following this call, Windstream held a separate teleconference with the Ministry of Energy’s Chief of Staff Craig MacLennan. Mr. MacLennan advised that he wanted to ensure that Windstream was ‘happy’ with the process, and confirmed that the project could continue,” the company’s claim says. Everything would just have to move more slowly, waiting for more science to be done to inform the government’s approvals.
Of course, the moratorium lasted five years and counting – long enough to kill an important contract Windstream had to sell the power its windmills would generate.
Reached via email, Benedetti told the Citizen, his firm was retained to “assist Windstream in responding to government consultations on proposed set-back exclusion zones. These zones would have potentially affected the project and the Power Purchase Agreement Windstream had received. Sussex worked to provide fact-based information to various ministries and authorities as requested, in order to help make informed decisions.”
As for Windstream, a lot of its argument that it suffered and deserves to be paid is based on the idea that the government jerked it around, which, ironically, could only have happened through the connections skilful lobbying created. If Windstream had never had any special meetings, its project still probably would have died, but with a lot less pain along the way.
As for the people of Ontario, though, we never got much out of the close relationship between the government and Windstream but an angry company and the prospect of a gigantic bill.
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