By Roy L Hales
When he was the leader of the opposition, John Horgan argued that Treaty 8 Nations “ have entrenched constitutional rights to practice hunting and fishing” on the land that will be underwater if the Site C Dam is built. The BC Utilities Commission recently concluded that “increasingly viable alternative energy sources such as wind, geothermal and industrial curtailment could provide similar benefits to [BC Hydro] ratepayers as the Site C project, with an equal or lower Unit Energy Cost.” Never-the less, today Premier John Horgan announced BC is moving forward with Site C.
BC Is Moving Forward With Site C
This mornings program is a series of Skype interviews and audio clips, starting with a segment from Horgan’s announcement.
“Although Site C is not the project we would have favoured and it is not the project we would have started, it must be completed to meet the objectives our government has set through mandate letters to ministers and commitments to the people of BC during the election campaign. Although Site C will cost more than $10 billion to complete, those costs can be recovered over a long period of time by the sale of electricity. Cancelling the project would mean an unavoidable $4 billion hit immediately, either on BC Hydro’s books or on the books of the minister of finance.”
According to Joe Foy of the Wilderness Committee, former Premier Christy Clark spent half of this money digging “a hole in the ground” and the other two billion is what it would cost “to repair the hole in the ground.”
Reactions to Horgan’s Announcement
Arlene Boon’s grandfather purchased the family’s farm in the 1940s. She and her husband Ken received an expropriation notice, to make way for the dam, last year.
Ken describes Horgan’s announcement as, “What we were used to hearing and would have expected from Stephen Harper, the Federal Liberals and of course Christy Clark – but everyone had such higher hopes for the John Horgan NDP Government.”
“We are shocked, given what the NDP have stood for in terms of reconciliation [with First nations] and understanding of the fiscal quagmire that Site C is … Up until a few days ago everyone in the province, outside of the backrooms, believed this dam was going to be cancelled,” said Joe Foy.
“This was not the right decision to make. It was a decision based on politics and not based on evidence. The B.C. Utilities Commission presented all the evidence needed for the government to know that the right thing to do was to cancel this dam. The Utilities Commission made it clear that there are alternatives to Site C, in terms of producing power, and those alternatives would be even cheaper than Site C,” added Galen Armstrong, of Sierra Club BC.
Incremental Steps More Sensible
Werner Antweiler from UBC’s Sauder School of Business, was more charitable, “I do appreciate the premier’s difficult position to make a decision that will pain a number of people and also create friction with their partner in government, the Green Party.”
“I’m tending towards the assumption our electricity use will increase as we do move towards electric mobility. That would mean that we do need some of these resources from clean places …”
“Hydro is clean, but [Site C] is one big step. It would have been more sensible, in my opinion … to actually go in these incremental steps using geothermal and wind, in that combination, because geothermal provides baseline, whereas wind is an intermittent source and we would have the ability to develop a suitable mix.
“I am disappointed with moving ahead with Site C. We are probably not developing these alternative sources, despite having a lot of potential for geothermal and wind here in the province, both onshore and offshore.”
The BC Liberal’s Fault
“For many years I have been extremely critical of the BC Liberal decision to proceed with this project. I questioned their motivations; I questioned their assumptions; I question their business case and their budgets. And we demanded, for years, that the BC Liberals go to the Utilities Commission, an independent body, to get accurate information to dispel the concerns of British Columbians – and the BC Liberals chose to ignore that. They got to the point of no return, that was their whole point. It wasn’t about public policy, it wasn’t about energy policy, it wasn’t about the best interests of British Columbians, it was about getting a project past the point of no return,” says Horgan.
“Worse, the mismanagement of BC Hydro over recent years has led to multiple digit increases in rates for people.24% over the past four years; some 70% since [the Liberals took power] in 2001. Hydro’s accounts were raided to balance the budget and they were called upon to build projects that were not necessarily consistent with the need and timing of their forecasts going forward.”
“For these reasons and more, we campaigned on a platform to send the question of BC Hydro’s Site C project to the BC Utilities Commission and have delivered on that commitment.”
Though the Commission confirmed what many feared, Horgan claims his government now has little choice aside from proceeding.
A False Argument
Joe Foy believes Horgan’s logic is flawed.
“The government’s argument is that, unlike the dam money, the cost to repair the [Site C] hole in the ground can not be amortized. In other words it cannot be spread out like … car payments, over a bunch of years and [the cost of building] the dam can be spread out over seventy years.
“We say that is a false argument. … With an economy the size of British Columbia’s, we could take that $2 billion that was put in Premier Clark’s hole and we could amortize that as well.”
“ … On the issue of spending $10 billion, maybe a lot more; On building Site C, whose power will not be needed in the foreseeable future and can only be sold at a loss. That huge debt starts to back up on increased taxes, increased debt payments, increased power costs. It ripples through the economy with closed businesses that can no longer afford their power costs or businesses that shift from electricity to fossil fuels to try to keep their nose above water. It just goes on an on …”
“Finally the smaller electrical production projects which should have fit in when power was needed, don’t get done. So we fall behind. We never learn: how to build a geothermal power plant; how to link up a truly major wind power with the already existing hydro reservoirs that we have. We don’t learn any of that. We don’t build that culture into our society. We just build this crazy culture of massive mega-projects that enrich a few and impoverishes the rest of us.”
A Higher Energy Usage Scenario
Werner Antweiler has a different perspective of British Columbia’s energy future.
“I think one can have a long argument about the energy forecast for the future. To the extent that we are hoping for an electrification of mobility, for example, we would like to see an increase of electricity use. At the same time there is some population growth, but there is also a big unknown: the improvement of energy efficiency. We could insulate our homes better and use less electricity for heating. There are a number of question marks in the debate about where our electricity future is going to be.”
He stressed British Columbia’s potential to be a leader in developing clean energy. He is particularly interested in combining wind and geothermal energy:
“ … Geothermal is by far the cleanest source we can think of because it has a very small footprint in terms of land use. It just drills into the ground. The water that comes out can be pumped back in, so it doesn’t lead to any leakage of any significance. It is something that is twenty-four/seven.
That said, Antweiler added that as we appear to be moving ahead with Site C, we should continue exploring the possibility of selling the excess electricity to Alberta.
(Much more in the podcast)
BC’s Green Energy future
“We are heading for a carbon free energy future. What that looks like is we stop exporting fuel now and we retool our economy in a cost effective fair way that recognizes human rights to bring in a carbon free energy. What that means is you don’t roll over the human rights of the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations with the Site C Dam. You don’t drown the North’s best farmland. But you do look at and get your hands on electrical energy projects, be they wind power, solar, small hydro or any number of ones that go to our two key areas of our future: human rights and carbon fee fuel,” said Foy.
Horgan’s New Initiatives
Premier Horgan promises to launch new initiatives in place to lessen the burden on BC Hydro and British Columbians.
“A food security fund, to ensure we are increasing the productivity of our agricultural land and making it more viable to farm not just in the Peace but right across British Columbia.”
“We are going to introduce new measures by reopening the standing offer program at BC Hydro so that indigenous people can build clean renewable energy to put into the grid …”
“We are going to make sure that the projects that go forward consist of project labour agreements, community benefit agreements; that will ensure we have much better training agreements much better than the forty-nine apprentices we have [for Site C?] today. We want to get those numbers up as high as we possibly can. We want to make sure local businesses benefit and local workers get access to the jobs.”
“And lastly, we are going to put in place a new oversight committee to make sure the current budget is met in the next number of years.”
Foy was not impressed, “Maybe Mr Horgan is going to genetically modify money so you can eat it like lettuce, but if he can’t figure out how you can eat money there is no way you can fix drowning all that farmland. No matter what you say, food comes from sun, water and land. When you drown [farm]land, you drown food.
Ken and Arlene Boon are still on the land her grandfather purchased in the 1940s, but their time could be running out.
“A year ago today was when we were expropriated, but we’ve been allowed to remain in our house. With the events of this last year, everything got put on hold with the road realignment .. So now I guess we wait and see what their plans are with this road realignment and if we have to get kicked out now or not,” said Ken.
West Moberly & Prophet River First Nations
I was not able to speak with Chief Roland Wilson of the West Moberly First Nation, but his lawyer issued a press release stating that the West Moberly First Nations and Prophet River First Nation have announced their intention to obtain a court injunction to halt construction of the project and to commence a civil action for Treaty infringement.
“Usually, courts are reluctant to hold up a project because of economic impacts. But with the BCUC’s report in hand, the court can actually save British Columbia billions of dollars, and protect our constitutional rights at the same time.”
Werner Antweiler added that, “There is a generic problem in British Columbia about the status of aboriginal rights and how we deal with land claims. Many of these land claims remain unsettled and whenever a large project is being developed, whether it is Site C dam or the Kinder Morgan pipeline or yet something else – such as an LNG plant – we will have these disputes about territorial rights. The only way to settle them is in court.”
Canadian Government Is Not Off The Hook
Galen Armstrong of Sierra Club BC believes the battle to stop Site C is far from over. Among other things, the government of Canada has some things to account for.
“February is the deadline for Canada to give their progress report to the World heritage committee on Wood Buffalo National Park, which is downstream from the Peace River Valley. They haven’t done any assessments on Site C’s impacts on Wood Buffalo and the Peace Athabaska Delta and Unesco and said they need to do so. I think that assessment will show there are serious impacts downstream.”
“The Federal Government has also promised to implement the United Nations declarations on the rights of indigenous peoples, as did the B.C. Government, and neither of those governments have shown any real interest in keeping that promise.”
Top Photo Credit: Premier John Horgan announcing the decision to move on with Site C – courtesy BC Government Photos via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)