Be­tween a dam and a hard place

Af­ter ap­prov­ing a con­tro­ver­sial cap­i­tal project, B.C.’s gov­ern­ment must face the wrath of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists

Investment Executive - - COMMENT & INSIGHT - BY BRIAN LEWIS IE

for british columbia pre­mier John Hor­gan, a re­cent de­ci­sion was a clas­sic ex­am­ple of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” id­iom. Fur­ther­more, that de­ci­sion in­volved an ac­tual dam — a very large one, in fact.

The novice pre­mier, whose party up­set the long-reign­ing B.C. Lib­er­als last spring thanks to the sup­port of the fledg­ling B.C. Green Party, had to lead his New Demo­cratic Party (NDP) mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment in a rul­ing that would de­cide the fate of the largest cap­i­tal project in B.C.’s his­tory: the $10.7bil­lion Site C hy­dro­elec­tric project un­der con­struc­tion on the Peace River.

Hor­gan ad­mit­ted in the gov­ern­ment’s an­nounce­ment on Dec. 11, 2017, which stated the con­tro­ver­sial project will pro­ceed, that he made the fi­nal de­ci­sion “with a heavy heart,” not­ing there were op­pos­ing views on the 1,100-megawatt megapro­ject.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists didn’t like the fact that Site C still needs about 5,500 hectares of farm­land to be flooded — even though the dam is the third hy­dro fa­cil­ity on the river be­ing fed up­stream by the mas­sive Wil­lis­ton Lake reser­voir.

Sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing much of B.C.’s busi­ness com­mu­nity, like that Site C will be a re­li­able, clean, low-cost en­ergy source for about 100 years, thus giv­ing B.C. a com­pet­i­tive eco­nomic edge.

Now, with the de­ci­sion made, the NDP has to face many staunch en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who sup­ported the party in the elec­tion. Ever since the pre­vi­ous Lib­eral gov­ern­ment gave Site C the go-ahead — with­out re­quir­ing a full reg­u­la­tory hear­ing — the NDP op­posed the project. How­ever, had Hor­gan’s gov­ern­ment de­cided to can­cel the project, all hell would’ve bro­ken loose.

Thanks to the Lib­er­als’ en­dorse­ment, con­struc­tion on Site C be­gan in July 2015. So, by the time Hor­gan or­dered a quick reg­u­la­tory re­view of the project last sum­mer, more than 2,400 British Columbians were work­ing on the project. Em­ploy­ment, of course, will only in­crease as Site C moves to­ward its 2024 com­ple­tion date.

Af­ter the B.C. Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion’s pub­lic in­quiry and re­port were com­pleted in Novem­ber, giv­ing Hor­gan and his cab­i­net data re­quired for a de­ci­sion, Site C con­struc­tion moved be­yond the point of no re­turn.

Ul­ti­mately, con­tin­u­ing the project came down to an is­sue of dol­lars and cents. About $2 bil­lion had been spent to date and, if the project was killed, al­most an­other $2 bil­lion would be re­quired for site re­me­di­a­tion. Fur­ther bil­lions would be re­quired for al­ter­na­tive power-gen­er­a­tion projects to re­place a can­celled Site C.

Most crit­i­cally, Hor­gan’s gov­ern­ment couldn’t af­ford to can­cel Site C and still have enough money left for spend­ing on hous­ing, schools, hos­pi­tals and uni­ver­sal child care that was promised dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign. “That’s a price we’re not will­ing to pay,” Hor­gan de­clared.

Iron­i­cally, the ve­he­mently anti-Site C Greens did not bring down the mi­nor­ity NDP on this is­sue be­cause they have big­ger fish to fry. The Greens hope to per­suade vot­ers in a com­ing ref­er­en­dum to change B.C.’s “first past the post” elec­toral sys­tem to a form of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion. If suc­cess­ful, the three-seat Greens stand a much bet­ter chance to win sub­stan­tially more seats in the next elec­tion.

As is usual in B.C., pol­i­tics pre­vailed.

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