The Public Utilities Board has asked all major intervenors in past Manitoba Hydro rate applications to weigh in on a request to hold a special hearing to determine whether conditions at the Crown utility have changed enough to warrant an adjustment to electricity rates.

The original application for the hearing was filed by the Consumers Coalition, an umbrella group that represents the Consumers Association of Canada (Manitoba), Harvest Manitoba, and the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg.

The coalition wrote to the PUB — an independent quasi-judicial administrative tribunal — last month to express its concern about how Hydro's finances have been "shrouded in secrecy" by the provincial government.

The coalition asked the PUB to convene a status update hearing to determine whether current hydro rates are appropriate, and deal with matters from past general rate applications (GRA) that have been left unattended since the utility stopped appearing before the board.

Before ruling on the coalition's application, the PUB has asked Hydro and other intervenors from past GRAs to weigh in: Manitoba Industrial Power Users Group; Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs; Green Action Centre; and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.

In an April 1 letter to the intervenors — a copy of which was obtained by the Free Press — the PUB asks for all submissions on the coalition's application by April 12.

The PUB has not convened a hydro rate hearing since 2018, even though it was asked to return with a new general rate application in the fall of 2019.

Hydro appears to be deferring to as-yet unpassed legislation brought forward by the Progressive Conservative government that would limit GRAs to once every five years. Even though the legislation has not passed, Premier Brian Pallister has twice raised hydro rates by 2.9 per cent: once as part of the 2020 budget implementation bill, and in 2021, by cabinet directive.

Gloria Desorcy, executive director of the CAC (Manitoba) said the coalition was pleased to see the PUB was taking its request seriously.

The Consumers Coalition believes that hydro rates should be set in transparent, evidence-based independent processes, rather than behind closed doors," she said. "We look forward to hearing the views of Manitoba Hydro and other intervenors on the value of an independent, public process for determining hydro rates.

The coalition applied for the special rate hearing under a section of the Crown Corporations Governance and Accountability Act and the Public Utilities Board Act. Under the terms of those laws, any person can ask the PUB to convene a special rate hearing if "the circumstances of Manitoba Hydro have changed substantially" since the last full hearing.

These applications are rare and so it's not entirely clear what the PUB will do after hearing submissions. However, the legislation does allow the PUB to order an interim rate adjustment if it deems it necessary.

everal of the intervenors are lining up behind the coalition's request for a special hearing.

Markus Buchart, lawyer for Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said his client is keen to meet with the PUB to discuss recent Hydro developments, particularly a series of legal setbacks that have left First Nation residents facing an effective 9.4 per cent increase this year on their electricity bills.

Peter Miller, a representative of the Green Action Centre, said his organization would also support the application.

There have been a lot of recent changes at Hydro and a lot of spin," Miller said. "So for those reasons, I think an update hearing is appropriate.

Antoine Hacault, who represents the Power Users Group at rate hearings, said his organization will be filing a response to the PUB, but declined to say whether it would be in support of the coalition application.

A spokesman for the premier declined to comment on the issue.