Act strips locals of power

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      Russ Oakley is a pretty regular guy. He's the plainspeaking, 62-year-old director of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District who represents Electoral Area A. That's the upper Bridge River Valley, about 3,800 square kilometres of mountains, forests, and BC Hydro reservoirs that lies more or less north of Pemberton and west of Lillooet.

      Oakley lives in Gold Bridge, population 43. He's worked in construction pretty well all his life, and although he still finds time to build the occasional concrete wharf or take on a building job, he's mainly busy with his regional-district duties. He isn't the type to get riled easily.

      These days, the word he uses to describe his frame of mind is livid.

      What's got Oakley furious is the same thing that has angered mayors, town councillors, and electoral-area representatives throughout the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and pretty much every local-government leader across the province who has even a fleeting familiarity with a thing called Section 56 of Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act (No. 2) 2006 (Bill 30). Victoria passed the law on May 15.

      Tucked into an omnibus bill that dealt with a range of statutes, Section 56 amends the Utilities Commission Act in a way that Energy Minister Richard Neufeld presented as though it were a mere housekeeping measure to “clarify the intent”  of the law and “foster investor confidence”  among private hydropower outfits. The amendment would provide a one-stop-shopping deal for all their regulatory approval.

      That's all. It's the same deal that BC Hydro gets, Community Services Minister Ida Chong said. No big deal.

      What's got the locals so riled up is that what Section 56 really does is it strips local governments of their power to enact zoning laws for “run of the river”  hydropower projects, and it leaves local communities with no bargaining leverage to negotiate amenities from project proponents.

      It was also a surprise move that effectively ripped up an agreement Victoria had struck with the Union of B.C. Municipalities to sort out the jurisdiction and benefits associated with local hydropower projects.

      This is no small event. With British Columbia now a net importer of electricity, hundreds of private run-of-the-river projects are in the works across the province. In the river-rich Squamish-Lillooet Regional District alone, there are about 60 of them planned. And there is a big difference between BC Hydro and these things. BC Hydro is a publicly owned utility.

      “We were really bullied and pushed around on this one,”  Oakley told me the other day. “I've just been so livid about this. I haven't been able to get it off my mind, I'm so upset with what they've done.” 

      What makes it all the more galling for local leaders is that it's not like run-of-the-river projects have to be forced on them. They're often warmly welcomed by people. Oakley is a big fan. That's the other big difference between BC Hydro–style power production and the private kind: run-of-the-river projects don't wreck everything.

      “They tend to be pretty unobtrusive,”  he said. No huge dams, no flooded valleys, just a minor diversion of a river through a pipeline to a small power plant, and some power lines to carry the electricity away to the grid. “Before long, everything just kind of grows up around them and you hardly know they're there.” 

      South of Oakley's precinct, in Electoral Area C, there are two small run-of-the-river plants that the regional district approved with support from local residents. One is on Miller Creek, just south of Pemberton, and the other is on Rutherford Creek in the Pemberton Valley. The regional district got amenities out of it worth $200,000 up-front and $40,000 a year for 40 years. A bargain for everybody, all-round.

      Now Oakley is expecting five more projects just in his electoral area. The licences are all held by the Ledcor Group, a huge player in the private hydropower business. Ledcor is the firm behind a big and bitterly contested run-of-the-river project on the Ashlu River, where local residents and the regional district have been squared off against Ledcor for the past three years.

      You'd think Victoria would clue into the fact that local people will be even less likely to want private run-of-the-river projects in their valleys if there's no local benefits, Oakley said. It's not like the things provide permanent jobs.

      Now everybody's digging in, and Steve Davis, the president of the Independent Power Producers lobby, is blasting regional governments for being “amateurs”  with “an axe to grind”  who want to do their own reviews and then demand “blackmail”  from the industry.

      “We're not going down without a fight,”  Oakley said. Apparently not: the regional district is appealing to Victoria to scrap Section 56, and they've set aside a war chest of $60,000 to mobilize local governments across the province.

      Good luck to them.

      There's already the Significant Projects Streamlining Act that Victoria brought in to override any local opposition to developments of “significant”  importance to the province. There's the Right to Farm Act and amendments to the Agricultural Land Reserve Act and the Private Managed Forest Lands Act, each prohibiting local communities from zoning for or against industrial forestry or fish farms or industrial-scale greenhouses.

      Then there's Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, who was cocky enough to crack a joke at a May 12 meeting with the Lower Mainland Municipal Association about China being blessed with “the ultimate Kevin Falcon government structure”  in matters of road-building and bridge construction: it's a dictatorship with no uppity locals or labour unions or environmental laws to worry about. “They just say, 'We're building a bridge,' and they move everyone out of there and get going within two weeks,”  Falcon said.

      And now a local dispute in West Vancouver over an Olympics-related expansion of the Sea-to-Sky Highway has degenerated into such bloody-mindedness that Eagleridge Bluffs is an international embarrassment and West Vancouver police were recently obliged to haul 23 protesters off to court.

      One might wonder whether or not Falcon was joking at all.

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