It’s time to reap the rewards of Site C construction
Last week, the provincial NDP government approved the completion of the Site C dam project. Critics of the project are likely to ramp up their opposition. We are hoping the government’s announcement will also mobilize those who support the project while seeing its flaws.
Site C has been more expensive to date than it should have been, thanks to the previous government’s procurement system and issues with contractors. With a change in management style, project costs can be brought under control. The result will be a supply of energy that is cost-competitive in North America.
Site C construction can achieve important social objectives. B.C.’s construction unions have proposed that industry and government work together to achieve clearly defined community benefit agreements. These agreements would maximize local hiring, skills training and the recruitment of women and Indigenous people into the construction workforce.
Under a Site C community benefit agreement, construction labour costs would be capped and labour stability guaranteed, with fair wages and safe conditions for all workers. These results have been achieved many times on B.C.’s hydro, highway and transit projects. In the private sector, engineering giants like Bechtel and SNC Lavalin have negotiated agreements with B.C. labour on recent major construction to ensure quality work and on-time completion.
Site C has been expensive partly because, in today’s world, project developers must carry out extensive environmental assessment and public engagement, amounting to years of preparatory work. B.C. Hydro has spent tens of millions of dollars on scientific studies to conclude that the project’s environmental effects will be limited. Project opponents continue to press for more process and more study.
The project’s opponents, bolstered by a B.C. Utilities Commission report, insist that Site C power can be easily and cheaply replaced, by electricity from other sources. However, there is no consensus on how this goal would be achieved.
We do know that some potential energy technologies that were touted as green or clean in the 1990s — waste-to-energy, for example, or run-of-river — ran into massive protest as soon as workable proposals were put forward for development.
Photovoltaic solar technology has some current public support, especially among hobbyists. With do-it-yourself installation labour, a homeowner or business can expect to collect energy savings from their solar kit — if they are prepared to wait 20 years. But with installation by qualified electricians — which should be mandatory, for the safety of customers and the grid — the payback time for consumer-driven solar disappears beyond the horizon.
As for wind power, B.C. would need a thousand turbines to produce half the power of Site C, and would receive it on an intermittent basis. If wind development is proposed on an industrial scale in B.C., we can expect loud complaints from the people who resist other forms of development. If the turbines are sited close to human habitation, it will be said that they are too close; if they are further away, we will hear about the threat to our pristine wilderness.
The cost of these renewables, judging by experience in other jurisdictions, is not cheap. German consumers pay subsidies in excess of the worst cost scenario for Site C to support a massive solar/wind experiment, even as their economy continues to depend on coal as the main source of electrical power.
We also have a well-organized faction among Site C opponents who are pressing for a made-in-B.C. nuclear power program, based on recent advances in generating technology and waste management.
The Site C project is well advanced — representing an estimated $4-billion construction commitment to date, or roughly the combined cost of the Port Mann/Highway 1 project and the Canada Line. Our unions support the government’s efforts to get communities and First Nations on side, and complete the project in a prudent and responsible way. The technology is proven, and our proposed project management model is proven. Let’s now move forward and maximize the benefits for British Columbians, and leave the legacy of the former Liberal government’s poor fiscal performance to debate at the next election.
Brian Cochrane is business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115; Adam Van Steinburg is business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213 and vice-president of the B.C. & Yukon Building Trades Council.