By Anna Johnston
It’s true: nothing is free.
When it comes to large utilities projects, such as the proposed Site C dam on the Peace River in northeastern B.C., the myriad environmental, cultural, social, and economic costs can be both significant and difficult to anticipate.
Given that its sticker price has shot up as much as 58 percent from the original estimate, a thorough, objective analysis of whether or not Site C is even necessary, let alone in the best interests of British Columbians, is long overdue.
And overdue for a reason. Although most public-utility projects must be certified by the British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC) before they can be built, when B.C. passed the Clean Energy Act in 2010, it exempted a Site C dam of a particular size from the requirement to undergo this important regulatory process.
However, the current Site C proposal has changed substantially from the one originally tabled. For starters, its price tag has risen to $7.9 billion from the original $5-billion to $6.6-billion estimate. It will also take years longer to construct, which means it would be longer before any benefits would be achieved and there would be more time for delays and cost escalations to occur.
B.C. Hydro’s arrears—which stand at more than $15 billion—have nearly doubled since 2010 and are expected to rise to $18.85 billion by 2015. Its debt-equity ratio is maxed, which means the dividends that B.C. Hydro pays to the province will be cut by more than half.
What is more, the Crown corporation faces massive capital costs to upgrade aging infrastructure during the next few years.
And who foots Hydro’s bills? Ratepayers, of course. As a Crown corporation, its debt is borne by the public.
This is why the Peace Valley Environment Association (PVEA) has filed a complaint with the BCUC over Hydro’s bypassing of the commission’s regulatory oversight. Like many, the Fort St. John–based conservation group is skeptical of Hydro’s financial claims and concerned about exactly how much this project could end up costing the public.
In light of Hydro’s track record for budgeting, ratepayers can hardly be blamed for worrying about footing a much larger bill than the almost $8-billion estimate. The Northwest Transmission Line (which was also exempt from BCUC review) is projected to cost $617 million, a 53-percent inflation over the $404-million original estimate.
But the costs would not only be financial. According to calculations based on data presented in the Site C environmental impact statement, the proposed dam would destroy 128 kilometres of rich valley-bottom lands (including major tributaries), harming vital wetlands and the habitat of birds and species at risk, including grizzly bear, wolverine, and caribou.
According the same assessment, it would also flood more than 16,000 acres of prime agricultural land, washing away farms that have been in families for generations. Dozens of First Nations heritage sites, including burial grounds and places of cultural and spiritual significance, would be lost.
It is crucial that when considering whether or not Site C is in British Columbians’ best interests, all its potential social, cultural, economic, and environmental implications are fully understood.
Although the requirements for BCUC certification are simple—that the project be needed for public convenience and necessity—the process involves just the kind of robust, transparent, thorough investigation and analysis that Energy Minister Bill Bennett has agreed that Site C needs.
Yes, Site C is undergoing an environmental assessment, and, yes, such assessments are an important part of responsible development. But passing off responsibility for reviewing all aspects of a major energy project like Site C to an environmental-assessment panel would be like entrusting brain surgery to your family physician. As a specialist body that has conducted many such investigations before, the BCUC has the experience, expertise, and regulatory tools needed to help ensure that British Columbia ratepayers are not on the hook for an $8-billion mistake.
Even Bennett, who is also the newly minted minister responsible for core review, has recently suggested that B.C. needs to critically evaluate the proposed Site C dam to determine its financial viability.
Indeed, a government that ran on a platform of economic growth and stability has an obligation to use all available mechanisms to make informed decisions about where it invests taxpayers’ money.
Because, as B.C. Hydro ratepayers know, there is no such thing as a “free” Site C.