John Horgan's legacy to British Columbia will be forged by his government's decision on Site C dam

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      The headline on this commentary is about the Site C dam. But I'm going to start with a walk down memory lane to another controversial government capital project.

      I'm hopeful that this will all make sense by the end of this lengthy essay.

      One of the biggest decisions facing the NDP government in the early 1990s was how to upgrade the ferry fleet.

      This was necessary to meet the needs of a growing population on Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast, and the Gulf Islands.

      The government could have gone with conventional ferries. But instead, then premier Mike Harcourt agreed with employment and investment minister Glen Clark's decision to build three catamarans.

      These so-called fast ferries were expected to cost $210 million. They ended up with a price tag of $460 million.

      They were completed three years behind schedule.

      These vessels were also expected to carry up to 800 passengers and 240 cars and travel at speeds up to 37 knots.

      However, they couldn't move that quickly in some areas because the ships' wakes were too large, damaging docks. This was one of several unintended consequences.

      The fastcat engines also had trouble dealing with the flotsam in the water so they were constantly undergoing repairs. That too was unexpected at the outset.

      Here was another unanticipated problem: passengers didn't want to bring pets on these vessels because the air was too warm. They didn't want to find Fido dead in the back seat of the car.

      Eventually, these fast ferries were pulled out of service and the Gordon Campbell goverment sold them at a huge loss to a large B.C. Liberal donor.

      It left B.C. Ferries in a horrible situation: how could it offer a decent level of service after a boondoggle of this magnitude?

      Here's what followed:

      1. The Crown corporation was turned into a government-owned company with a tough-talking American CEO with no real political accountability.

      2. Fares went up sharply during the B.C. Liberal era. Vancouver Island, Sunshine Coast, and Gulf Island residents paid an enormous price in lost economic activity, not to mention fewer visits from loved ones.

      3. Because of the high price of ferry service, more people in the Lower Mainland became less willing to travel to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. This diminished the bonds between British Columbians in these two regions.

      4. Many Vancouverites found it more appealing to drive to Whistler or the Okanagan wine country for their B.C. vacations, stimulating economic activity in these areas rather than on Vancouver Island.

      5. Resentment grew on the island against the B.C. Liberals, who won progressively fewer seats in this region in subsequent elections.

      6. The B.C. Greens gathered momentum on Vancouver Island, electing their first MP and first B.C. MLA in history.

      7. There were murmurings of Vancouver Island separating from B.C. and forming its own province because it was getting such a raw deal from the B.C. Liberal government. Ferry fares and ferry service are common gripes among island residents.

      As this story indicates, poorly thought-out capital projects can have long-term ramifications.

      Some of these consequences are not anticipated at the time politicians make these decisions.

      That's because they're often driven by shorter term considerations.

      Foremost is how their policies will play out on Global B.C., CTV, CBC, C-Fax Radio, CHNL Radio, and CKNW Radio or in the pages of the Vancouver Sun, Province, Globe and Mail and Black Press and Glacier newspapers.

      This is what drove an expensive and unnecessary convention-centre expansion in Vancouver. It went from $495 million to $883 million by the time it was completed.

      The reaction of the corporate media is also an important variable in whether today's NDP government will approve the $8.8-billion Site C dam in northeastern B.C.

      The $535-million upgrade to B.C. Place raised questions about the B.C. Liberals' financial competence.

      Fast-ferry rationalizations don't wash

      These days, the NDP likes to pooh-pooh the fast-ferry scandal.

      Here's how the rationalization goes: the B.C. Liberals blew nearly twice as much money on the Vancouver Convention Centre expansion.

      Or you'll hear that there were large cost overruns on the B.C. Liberals' $535-million upgrade to B.C. Place Stadium.

      Both of these points are true.

      But that still doesn't justify what NDP politicians did to the ferry fleet.

      Decent ferry service is fundamental to keeping island residents feeling like they're valued residents of the province.

      It's worth noting that the convention-centre and stadium boondoggles also caused resentment toward Vancouver from suburban politicians.

      Mayors in Burnaby and Surrey never saw this type of provincial largesse in their cities.

      So it can be argued that these pork-barrel projects also created divisions among British Columbians.

      Stakes are much higher with Site C

      This week, the NDP government under John Horgan is expected to issue a decision on the future of the Site C dam in northeastern B.C. along the Peace River.

      The conventional wisdom as expressed in a Vaughn Palmer column is that Horgan won't halt construction on the dam.

      It was initially estimated to cost $6.6 billion in 2010.

      Then it went to $7.9 billion in 2011 and then to $8.8 billion in 2014 (including a contingency fund).

      It's reminiscent of the steady upticks in the cost of the convention centre, except this time we're talking billions of dollars rather than just hundreds of millions.

      A recent B.C. Utilities Commission review showed that Site C could cost more than $10 billion by the time it's completed.

      According to the BCUC review, it could conceivably hit $12 billion.

      A recent video (see below) by critics of the Site C dam showed that $10 billion would cover the cost of 15 well-equipped hospitals or 94 schools or homes for 25,000 families.

      This video makes the case against the Site C dam.

      The price of the Site C dam is now the equivalent of two new Broadway subways, two new Pattullo Bridges, and six light-rail lines in Surrey, according to the video. 

      Despite these grim numbers, an Angus Reid Institute poll in September showed that people who voted B.C. Liberal are overwhelmingly in favour of completing the Site C dam.

      Horgan and his braintrust covet those B.C. Liberal voters because they could keep the NDP in power for many years.

      B.C. Liberal voters invariably like large, taxpayer-financed capital projects, whether it's an unneeded convention centre, a colossally expensive stadium upgrade, or underutilized new bridges crossing the Fraser River.

      The building-trades unions also love them.

      Business organizations are always going to be onboard for capital expenditures that benefit their members in the engineering, road-building, and dam-building industries.

      Meanwhile, the owner of Black Press, David Black, has long been a proponent of the Site C dam.

      This dates back to his days as chair of the B.C. Progress Board under then premier Gordon Campbell.

      There are a lot of trucks and hunting and fishing gear that can be advertised and sold to the mostly male workforce hired to build these projects.

      Keep in mind that Premier Horgan might want to mollify a major publisher like Black. This may be especially so after Horgan's finance minister deep-sixed Black's dream of Victoria hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

      Opponents of the Site C dam such as First Nations leaders, Peace Valley landowners, farmland advocates, Amnesty International, and supporters of renewable energy usually can't compete with major publishers and influential business organizations in the quest for politicians' attention.

      So these Davids have to resort to occupying constituency offices and pleading with time-starved media to read thick reports and look at the data. 

      That's not to say that Horgan and his cabinet won't face political and economic consequences should they approve the Site C dam.

      Here are just five potential long-term possibilities that may not have been fully considered by NDP politicians:

      1. Storage of renewable energy

      It's not far-fetched to expect great advances in storage of renewable power by the time the dam is completed.

      This would refute arguments by the project's supporters that less expensive solar power cannot be stored. In fact, it's already happening

      2. Electricity prices crash 

      If storage of renewable power becomes commonplace, far more residential and commercial building owners across North America would generate and store their own electricity.

      They would slap solar panels on the roof and explore the potential of geothermal energy from underground. First Nations in B.C. would also explore wind and tidal power more vigorously if this energy could be stored.

      On a continentwide scale, this has the potential to result in sharply lower demand for power from large-scale utilities like B.C. Hydro.

      It's bad enough that demand has been flat for a decade. Imagine how things might look for provincial finances and B.C. Hydro's debt if demand shrinks.

      With access to storage, B.C. Hydro ratepayers would be seeking access to the grid to sell their surplus energy. Electricity prices would plummet. The most heavily indebted utilities would go bankrupt.

      Saanich North and the Islands Green MLA Adam Olsen is in a position to expand his party's appeal should the NDP approve the Site C dam.

      3. New political alliance forms

      If Site C is approved, there could be a coming together of Indigenous leaders, the environmental movement, small-scale renewable-energy advocates, and the B.C. Greens over the NDP's willingness to pursue a very questionable 1950s-style energy megaproject.

      One of the Green MLAs, Tsartlip First Nation member Adam Olsen, could play a key role, as could Grand Chief Stewart Philip and acolytes of environmentalist David Suzuki.

      This could redraw political allegiances in B.C., particularly if the NDP government also fails to thwart the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

      4. Trouble for the NDP in the 2021 election

      This Green-Indigenous-environmental political alliance could make the case in the 2021 election that the NDP and the B.C. Liberals are both ill-suited to govern in the 21st century.

      That's because of these old-line parties' inability to recognize how the storage of renewable electricity was already changing the electricity game in 2017 when the decision was made to give the go-ahead to the Site C dam.

      5. Whistlestop tour highlighting Site C's opportunity cost

      Economists define an opportunity cost as the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

      And it could be very high for the Site C dam.

      In the 2021 election, the B.C. Green leader could mention at every campaign stop the cost of their opponents' policy on Site C in terms of the number of schools, hospitals, and rapid transit projects that were never built.

      Other potential consequences from Site C

      Above is just a short list of what could transpire.

      A longer list might include a high-profile international campaign of shame against Horgan and the NDP by Amnesty International and others centred around Indigenous rights.

      This could be similar to the antilogging campaigns of shame in the 1990s against a previous NDP government over logging in Clayoquot Sound.

      Another potential consequence is more political dissatisfaction with the NDP among the party's base on Vancouver Island.

      Supporting the Site C dam is not likely to bring Cowichan Valley, now represented by Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, back into the NDP fold. 

      Completing the dam might even jeopardize the NDP's hold on Victoria-Beacon Hill should Carole James choose not to seek reelection in 2021 after four terms in office.

      That's to say nothing of the potential impact on NDP MLAs in such constituencies as Vancouver-Fairview, Vancouver-Point Grey, Burnaby North, and North Vancouver-Lonsdale.

      It's still far too early to predict whether we'll eventually see more Vancouver Islanders wanting to sever ties with the rest of B.C. and forming their own province.

      But it's not inconceivable.

      If the Site C dam ends up costing $15 billion or more and if the B.C. government is forcing residents to buy B.C. Hydro's power 20 years from now to pay off the debt, it's not completely out of the question for some islanders to question their ties to the province.

      Horgan is a Vancouver Islander himself, as are his finance minister, education minister, agriculture minister, transportation and infrastructure minister, and minister of indigenous relations and reconciliation.

      They, more than anyone in cabinet, recognize what's bubbling below the surface in the hearts and minds of Vancouver Islanders.

      People in the island think differently. Generally speaking, they're more environmentally inclined than other British Columbians. They value farmland. They're often  less materialistic than those living in the Lower Mainland. Their economy is more powered by small businesses than the economy in Vancouver.

      They're not so taken with grand dreams of creating world-class cities. Many just want to live sustainably and in harmony with their surroundings, while being able to afford raising their families in an increasingly expensive province.

      Horgan's legacy to future generations will be forged by his government's decision on the Site C dam.

      If it eventually becomes a contributing factor to the breakup of British Columbia, he and his cabinet colleagues will have no one to blame but themselves.