Old Ontario Hydro Debt Likely To Grow Again

The $20.1 billion public debt that is the legacy of Ontario Hydro appears likely to grow again this year, while the agency responsible for the debt has missed its legal reporting deadline.

The Ontario Electricity Financial Corp. is required by law to submit its annual report by June 30, but Scott Brownrigg, an official in Finance Minister Janet Ecker's office, said this year's report still hasn't been filed.

It's expected to arrive soon, Brownrigg said yesterday, but probably won't be released publicly until late summer.

OEFC holds the $38 billion debt left by Ontario Hydro when it was broken up in 1998. Some of that debt is offset by assets, but as of last year $20.1 billion was "stranded" debt with no offsetting assets.

The province charges power users an extra 0.7 of a cent a kilowatt hour to raise money to pay down the stranded debt, and collects payments in lieu of taxes from electricity companies owned by the province and municipalities.

But OEFC's income hasn't kept up with the debt payments owed, so the stranded debt has risen from $19.4 billion when OEFC assumed it to last year's $20.1 billion.

It's likely to increase this year, as OEFC must finance any shortfalls that result from the provincial government's decision to freeze the price of power at 4.3 cents a kilowatt hour for householders and small businesses.

However, generating companies are guaranteed the full market price, which has averaged more than 6 cents. OEFC must finance the difference between what consumers pay and what generators receive.

To the end of March 31, which marks the end of OEFC's fiscal year, the gap stood at $480 million, which must be added to the stranded debt.

In addition, OEFC may have to finance purchases of expensive imported power. Consumers already pay a charge through their regular rates to cover emergency imports. But that may not be enough to cover the full cost of imports, which can be very expensive when purchased at short notice.

No figures are available on whether there's a deficit to be financed this year.

It also appears that OEFC's income may drop this year.

Income from the province's two big electricity companies, Ontario Power Generation and Hydro One, is used to pay down the stranded debt. But both companies saw their profits drop in 2002.

Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, said the result is a "gigantic public debt" created by government electricity policy.

Adams said OEFC should be held to its reporting deadlines so the public has a clear picture of the debt.

"I think it's outrageous when you've got crown corporations behaving like scofflaws," he said.

The Toronto Star

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