Jordan Bateman: B.C. Hydro fails to come clean on winding down dividends and repaying deferral accounts

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      In the dog days of summer, while the rest of the world was fixated on the excruciating minutiae of Trump vs. Clinton, Bill Bennett and Adrian Dix had their own war of words.

      This tit for tat erupted over B.C. Hydro’s excessive use of deferral accounts—a way to use debt to kick down the road the costs and contracts the Crown corporation is responsible for.

      Dix, the energy critic for the opposition NDP, penned an op-ed criticizing BC Hydro for using those deferral accounts like a credit card: “Deferral accounts represent 132 per cent of equity at B.C. Hydro, compared to 11 per cent at Manitoba Hydro and seven per cent at Hydro-Québec,” he wrote, also noting that B.C. Hydro had to borrow just to make a $259 million dividend payment to government.

      Bennett, the B.C. Liberal energy minister, fired back, highlighting billions in B.C. Hydro infrastructure investment and noting that the corporation had a 10-year plan to pay down deferral accounts while trying to minimize rate hikes. He also noted that the government is winding down Hydro’s responsibility to pay dividends to the B.C. government.

      Naturally, a taxpayer watchdog like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) was intrigued. How had cabinet come to such a decision on dividends and how would B.C. Hydro pay down these deferral accounts? Was it even possible without massive rate hikes? Who was on the right track, Dix or Bennett?

      That same week, the CTF filed a freedom of information (FOI) request to get copies of the documentation prepared for Bennett on dividends and deferral accounts around the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year.

      Six full months after we filed the request, we got our response. And it was pitiful.

      The government sent along 724 censored pages. It appears eight different cabinet advice documents were censored.

      There was not one single word about the annual dividend B.C. Hydro has to pay to government, or how Bennett and cabinet came to the decision that it should be wound down, and what Hydro should do with that money. But we did get a portion of the completely irrelevant “Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in BC”.

      The FOI had one measly powerpoint presentation with a mention of deferral accounts that was about as deep as a contestant on The Bachelor. The chart shows that the accounts are already higher than originally projected and yet would somehow be lower than the forecast by 2024.

      They also stuck it in B.C. Hydro’s annual report, which is already available.

      We got half a page showing a Blackberry message of questions asked by the legislative press gallery. From when? It doesn’t say. Whose notes? It doesn’t say. It lists "Vaughn" (Palmer of the Sun, we presume) as asking about deferral repayments and notes that some projects would be rescheduled to get that debt down.

      The government FOI did include two news releases and three press clippings from 2000 and 2001, recounting how the NDP government froze Hydro rates and then issued British Columbians $200 rebate cheques. Irrelevant to today’s issues—although I’m sure the NDP doesn’t mind the public being reminded of those days.

      We’re now three months from the provincial election. The government doesn’t seem to want to talk in-depth about B.C. Hydro, so it will be up to the voters to press it as an issue.

      What are the parties’ plans to get B.C. Hydro out of debt? How much will they increase our rates? How will they bring costs under control? What will they do about the Hydro dividend? How will Trudeau’s carbon tax hikes affect energy costs?

      Energy poverty is a real threat—ask the people struggling to get by in Ontario. British Columbians don’t want to get into a position of picking heating or eating. But if we don’t push our potential premiers for details, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.