Emma Gilchrist: Why it's not too late to stop the Site C dam in northeastern British Columbia

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      By Emma Gilchrist

      “Hydro’s demand forecasts are persistently and systematically wrong. There is no reason to believe that much new power, if any, will be required in the next 20 to 30 years. But if there is, there are several alternatives available which are markedly less expensive and less damaging to Aboriginal interests, fisheries and the environment generally, than Site C.”

      Those are the words of Harry Swain, who chaired the review of the Site C dam, in an affidavit filed in federal court this week.

      The B.C. Hydro Ratepayers Association is challenging the decision of the federal minister of Fisheries and Oceans to issue a permit authorizing destruction of fish habitat for the Site C dam on the basis that the minister neglected to assess the justification for the project.

      Indeed, the justification for the project is the key sticking point for many British Columbians concerned about the economic consequences of building the $8.8 billion dam on the Peace River.

      In new polling conducted by Insights West on behalf of DeSmog Canada, 73 percent of British Columbians support sending the Site C dam for an independent review of both costs and demand.

      “Hasn’t that already happened?” you might wonder. The short answer is no, because the B.C. Liberals exempted the most expensive public project in B.C. history from review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

      Even so, Swain’s panel insisted the project be reviewed by the utilities commission—which exists to ensure fair rates and that shareholders in public utilities are “afforded a reasonable opportunity to earn a fair return on their invested capital.” The province ignored that recommendation.

      During rate design hearings this summer, the B.C. Utilities Commission learned that B.C. Hydro doesn’t plan to pay off the Site C dam until 70 years after it’s built—in 2094.

      And that’s a best case scenario, if B.C. Hydro’s load forecasts turn out to be correct—despite being persistently wrong—and if the project comes in on budget, despite a 2014 Oxford University study which analyzed 245 large dam projects and found cost overruns were, on average, 96 percent.

      One mustn’t look further than the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam in Labrador, which is now estimated to be $4 billion over its 2012 estimated cost and is projected to lead to an increase of $150 per month for every household’s electricity bill, to see the very real risk of overestimating demand and underestimating cost.

      “The project is identical to Site C in the sense that the project went ahead without proper due diligence and the business case was not adequately undertaken and in a short period of time major changes took place which resulted in a phenomenal escalation of costs,” Marc Eliesen, former CEO of B.C. Hydro, told DeSmog Canada.

      Which brings us back to the new polling. Seven in 10 respondents support pausing construction of Site C to investigate alternatives to meet future power demand.

      While Premier Christy Clark has promised to get to “the point of no return” before the next election, survey results suggest British Columbians prefer taking a more measured approach.

      “We’re not too late to either cancel or suspend Site C while a full and impartial, objective review is taken,” Eliesen said. “There have been a number of major hydro developments in Canada that were subsequently cancelled.”

      Previous polls by B.C. Hydro have indicated broad support for the dam by using a question that references “increasing power demand”—despite the fact electricity demand was the same in 2015 as it was in 2005.

      The new Insights West polling indicates that if demand for more power arises in the future, nine in ten British Columbians support investing in energy efficiency measures (92 per cent) and adding more wind, solar and geothermal power to the grid as needed (also 92 per cent). Just over a third (37 per cent) support building large hydro dams.

      Given that nearly $9 billion of public money is at risk here, and the power isn’t needed for at least a decade, it seems prudent to give this mega project the review it should have received in the first place. 

      Emma Gilchrist is executive director of DeSmog.ca, an online magazine focused on energy and environment. You can reach her at emma@desmog.ca.