A luxury fishing trip has prompted questions about the deep connections between Newfoundland and Labrador’s premier and the company hoping to kick-start a hydrogen energy sector in the province.
Last Wednesday, Premier Andrew Furey rejected opposition claims that he was in a conflict of interest when he vacationed last year at a Labrador fishing lodge owned by billionaire seafood magnate John Risley, The Canadian Press reports.
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Known for co-founding Clearwater Seafoods, Risley is now the head of World Energy GH2, a company looking to build a massive wind and hydrogen energy project on Newfoundland’s blustery west coast. He’s also a friend of the premier.
But Furey said he was at Risley’s Rifflin’ Hitch Lodge to fish for salmon with his father, Senate Speaker George Furey. Though Risley was at the lodge, they did not discuss his business interests, nor any other government affairs, Furey said.
“Everybody’s been critical of me from Day 1,” he told reporters at the legislature. “About first my charitable work, then me practicing medicine, and now about what I do on my vacation time. We need to have some respect for public figures here in their own personal time. It’s my time, my dime, and what I do with it, frankly, is my business.”
The story was first reported by news site allNewfoundlandLabrador.com.
World Energy GH2 is a consortium of companies vying to capitalize on western Newfoundland’s steady winds and Germany’s hunger to find alternative energy sources to Russian natural gas. The first phase of the consortium’s proposal calls for up to 164 onshore wind turbines to power a hydrogen production facility in Stephenville. Long-term plans call for tripling the project’s size.
Businessman Brendan Paddick, whom Furey has described as his best friend, is a lead director.
Election reports show Paddick donated C$10,000 to Furey’s Liberals during the 2021 provincial election year. Two GH2 partners, including a company led by Risley, donated a total of $30,000 to the Liberals.
Barry Petten, acting leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives, didn’t buy Furey’s arguments in the legislature Wednesday.
“Let me get this straight, the premier spends days with a billionaire donor, who’s leading a wind development project, in a luxury cabin. He expects people of the province to believe that wind energy did not come up once?” Petten asked.
He said documents obtained by the party through Access to Information legislation show government officials began discussing a longstanding moratorium on wind energy projects in September 2021, just a few months after Furey’s trip. The moratorium was lifted around the same time the federal government approved the controversial Bay du Nord oil and gas extraction project off the Newfoundland coast, in what critics called a “slap in the face” to climate science.
But Furey noted Risley’s company submitted its proposal for the hydrogen project in June, well after the trip had ended.
The proposal will first have to clear the environmental assessment stage, as well as the government’s bid process for wind energy projects seeking Crown lands.
Furey said he’s maintained an “ethical wall” between himself and the GH2 proposal, with another minister handling that portfolio.
“I have many friends that I can continue to have after this process is all done,” he said. “It’s about how you manage the conflict. And what I’ve done to manage the conflict is put up these ethical walls so that I don’t have direct interaction with them and their files.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published October 20, 2022.