British Columbians could pay huge price in wake of premier's decision to complete Site C dam
It was sad and surreal watching Premier John Horgan's news conference about the Site C dam last night on the Canadian Public Affairs Channel.
He conceded that his wife and his brother disagreed with his government''s decision to complete construction of the $10.7-billion albatross in northeastern B.C.
The premier also acknowledged that there were deep divisions in other NDP families.
His minister of indigenous relations and reconciliation and close personal friend, Scott Fraser, was not at his side.
The minister of environment and climate change strategy, George Heyman, looked somewhat uncomfortable.
His energy minister, Michelle Mungall, had to field a question about B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver's suggestion that voters should launch a recall movement in her constituency of Nelson-Creston.
Horgan certainly knew that with this announcement, an undetermined number of NDP voters would switch their allegiance to the B.C. Greens.
That's because Weaver and his colleagues have consistently made the case in recent years for cancelling the project.
In part, it's because the price of other forms of renewable energy has crashed through the floor, making Site C power appear far more expensive in comparison.
Horgan's justifications for proceeding sounded like they were right out of the mouth of the finance minister, Carole James, who was in Ottawa negotiating a larger share of cannabis revenues.
Here's how Horgan's tale went:
• If we cancel Site C, we'll have to absorb a $4-billion debt on the B.C. Hydro and provincial books. That's because more than $2 billion has been spent and another $1.8 billion will be spent on remediation costs.
• This will deprive the NDP government of having the fiscal room to deliver new rapid transit, schools, and other public services in this term.
• This will also lead to an immediate 12 percent increase in B.C. Hydro rates. And that goes against the NDP promise of making life more affordable.
Horgan delivered this message with all the conviction he could muster.
The reality, as Weaver pointed out later on CBC Radio's As It Happens, is that the NDP eliminated any fiscal wriggle room before the election by cancelling tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges.
On his website, Weaver noted that this decision on bridge tolls moved $4.7 billion from self-supporting debt to taxpayer-supported debt.
That's more than the cost of cancelling the Site C dam.
Any increase in the provincial debt by cancelling the Site C dam would lower B.C.'s credit rating and cost taxpayers significantly more in debt-service payments each year.
"Yet today, they evoke concerns about increasing provincial debt as the reason why Site C must move forward," Weaver said. "Had they not so crassly eliminated the tolls in a desperate attempt to grab votes, Site C could have been cancelled today."
Horgan made a choice. Rather than having no Site C dam, restoring the beautiful Peace River Valley, and seeing the province benefit from decades of agricultural production in this area, he and his brain trust decided that motorists will pay no tolls to cross two bridges in the eastern suburbs of Vancouver. And that might ensure the NDP keeps its seats in Metro Vancouver's northeast sector and Surrey.
There was no mention of the impact of cannabis revenue on the province's fiscal position, even though the feds have agreed to turn over 75 percent of it.
Are former NDP leaders still driving the bus?
Horgan inherited the NDP leadership after his two former bosses, Carole James and Adrian Dix, flamed out in their attempts to defeat the B.C. Liberal government.
Given their histories, it's hard to imagine James, Dix, or the premier's chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, arguing against completing the Site C dam.
Based on what I've seen in the past and heard from others, I'm under the impression that these are the most influential advisers to Horgan, though Poverty Reduction Minister Shane Simpson and Fraser also have his ear.
The James-Dix-Meggs triumvirate has demonstrated over many years that they're exceedingly concerned about how NDP policies are viewed in the mainstream media, and particularly in the pages of the Vancouver Sun.
When James was leading the B.C. NDP, it sometimes seemed as though the party's interrogations in question period were crafted with a view to how they would be covered by the press gallery.
Nowadays, the consensus in the press gallery is that completing construction of the Site C dam is a good idea.
During the question-and-answer session with Horgan on C-PAC, there was not a single question from the press gallery about the flat domestic demand for electricity in B.C. dating back to 2005.
Meanwhile, Horgan's fiscal somersaults were breathtaking.
According to him, cancelling the Site C dam would result in fewer public services than would be created by completing the project.
Horgan also argued that proceeding with this $10.7-billion project (not counting debt-service costs and future cost overruns) will somehow protect ratepayers from higher B.C. Hydro rates.
At its current price, the Site C dam would pay for the cost of a subway from VCC-Clark Station to UBC's Point Grey campus, six light-rail lines in Surrey, and two new Pattullo bridges.
It would pay for about 100 schools or 20 new hospitals.
This is not just an $883-million convention centre or a $535-million upgrade to B.C. Place stadium. This is the provincial equivalent of the F-35 fighter-jet purchase, and therefore, it demands a review by the auditor general.
Yet here was Horgan making the case that cancelling the Site C dam would make it much harder for the B.C. government to build schools and hospitals.
That's to say nothing of the impact on Indigenous relations, the future of food production in B.C., or the deleterious effect on the renewable-energy sector and the employment and tax revenue that it would generate.
Farmland is a 21st-century winner
In 2015 author Jeff Rubin made the case in The Carbon Bubble: What Happens to Us When It Bursts that farmland is the new gold.
That's because climate change was extending the growing season north of the 49th parallel.
On the Canadian Prairies, NASA was noting that it was 26 days longer, on average, than 50 years ago.
This is enabling the production of new crops, such as soybeans and corn.
Rubin predicted that the sharp decline in the coal industry would be followed by a decline in Canada's oil sector because Canadian production costs were simply too high.
Furthermore, the fossil-fuel industry is dogged by stranded assets. That's because if these companies actually made use of everything on their balance sheets, the climate-change impact would make much of the planet uninhabitable for human beings.
That's what's driving the divestment movement on college campuses. The coal industry has been the first to fall, but others will follow as the price of renewable energy continues going down.
By the time the Site C dam is completed, the Alberta oil industry quite likely might be meeting the same fate.
“Already today, food prices provide a lot more value added than oil or coal,” Rubin told the Straight. “Thinking of it in the future, that’s going to be all the more the case.”
He also told the Straight how foolish it was for the former premier, Christy Clark, to proceed with the Site C dam in light of what was happening in the energy and agriculture industries.
Rubin made the point that there was no need for Site C power to drive the production of fossil fuels over the next century when the fossil-fuel sector was dying in Canada.
The Site C dam was created, in large part, to provide energy for B.C.'s liquefied-natural-gas industry, which is unlikely to materialize.
In the future, electricity prices could fall sharply as increasingly cheap renewables pick up the slack and people start generating their own power at home.
B.C.'s current premier and his cabinet, on the other hand, have decided that because of sunk costs along the Peace River, this justifies spending another $9 billion or more on a 1950s-style hydroelectric project that's going to undermine B.C.'s agricultural production.
Somehow, we're led to believe that this will enable the province to afford more schools, rapid-transit projects, and hospitals.
Then to rub it in, supporters of the Site C dam repeatedly insist that this won't be a voting issue come the next provincial election. We'll see about that.
It's a topsy-turvy political world in British Columbia.
And you thought things were crazy south of the border.