Doug McArthur: Why the rush to private hydropower in B.C?
By Doug McArthur
A relatively new so-called B.C. green power strategy is being vigorously promoted by the government and the private power industry in British Columbia. It is focused almost totally on private, investor-owned hydropower.
It goes without saying that green power is important if we are to ever achieve a sustainable economy. But there are real questions are about how we get there, and what government policy should do to support it.
The advocates of the current strategy claim two things: first, that we need vast amounts of new power soon, and, second, that rapidly developing private hydropower is needed to meet these needs.
The truth is, however, that we don’t need vast amounts of new power. If we focus on what is really important, which is better managing our use and consumption of power, much of the rationale for new hydropower disappears. To do that, power needs to be priced to large users to encourage conservation, and we need to make major investments in conservation, which to date has not happened. While conservation consistently ranks as the lowest cost option for ensuring we can meet future power needs without building damaging new power projects, it takes a back seat to new development in B.C. today.
Instead the government sells us the idea that we need a lot of new power. Private hydropower producers have responded with enthusiasm. After years of public power and no major new projects, 50 private hydro projects are operating or close to operating. There are approximately 135 proponents of additional projects, attempting to snap up prime public land and water licences with little if any meaningful regulation or planning. A virtual gold rush has been set loose in seek of these valuable public assets at virtually giveaway prices.
Many of these projects are anything but green.
For example, Mark Angelo of the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C., a highly respected researcher into the condition of our lands and rivers recently reported that half of B.C.’s 10 most threatened rivers are at risk from so-called green-energy private hydro projects. He singles out among others the Bute Inlet—ranked eighth on the council’s list of endangered waters—which is the site of an environmentally devastating Plutonic Power project involving a record 17 stream diversions, 445 kilometres of transmission lines, 314 kilometres of roads, 142 bridges, 16 powerhouses, and a substation.
Many experts have identified loss of valuable forest land, the destruction of pristine watersheds, destruction of valuable salmon habitat, and other serious environmental impacts from this and similar developments. They are joined by environmental organizations such as Save our Rivers and the Wilderness Committee.
To make matters worse, these projects are of limited economic value. They produce most of their power in the spring, when B.C. Hydro already has a surplus of water power. B.C. Hydro is being forced by the government to pay exorbitant prices to buy power of little value. This is economic nonsense, and costs us all needless money.
Consultation and involvement with communities and First Nations has been abysmal. Dan Smith, in a presentation just a month ago on behalf of the B.C. First Nations Summit political executive, stated that with a few exceptions First Nations have been left to be picked off or played against each other by developers, consultation is abysmal, and land rights are being ignored.
Community leaders, local governments, and researchers express deep reservations as they see projects unfold with negative impacts far beyond what is acceptable. They are seldom heard or listened to.
The more common response is to try to silence and discredit criticism rather than engage in an open public dialogue. Consider the case of the economist Marvin Shaffer, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, who has written extensively on the subject of private power in B.C. with well-thought-through criticism. His work resulted in the Independent Power Producers Association of B.C. hiring a consultant, who is also a professor at Simon Fraser University, a well-know proponent of private hydro power, and a government paid consultant, to publicly trash Shaffer’s work. This biased attack was widely publicized through the vast resources of the organization, including a high-profile press conference which cast a dark and unmistakable shadow over Shaffer’s competence and his motives.
All this was done notwithstanding the fact that Shaffer is a serious scholar, researcher, and teacher, highly respected by his peers. His work is of the highest quality. His error was to be critical of private power producers.
This whole distasteful exercise, in the tradition of the politics of personal destruction, was clearly designed to impose a chill on future critics who might think of also voicing doubts and criticisms. The last time we witnessed these kind of bully tactics was in the forest debates of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when sincere academics and environmentalists were vilified and intimidated through the use of special paid consultants and a hopefully compliant media.
Thank goodness, critics and the media refused to be silenced. As was the case then, today’s environmental groups, researchers, and media must not allow themselves to be intimidated by these kinds of tactics. A vigorous airing of important policy by civil society is essential in an open society. In the case of the environment, this is especially important.
Doug McArthur is a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University.