The proposed Site C dam on the Peace River is the best alternative for providing B.C. with reliable cheap power, but BC Hydro has not proved that the power is needed in the immediate future, says a much-anticipated report by the federal Joint Review Panel.
The report does not give a definitive yes or no answer to the planned 1,100 megawatt dam, which will flood about 5,500 hectares of land, but includes 50 recommendations on issues such as threats to endangered wildlife, health effects for those living in the area and destruction of First Nations heritage sites.
If approved, project construction would begin in 2015 with completion projected for 2023.
The ambivalent report says B.C. will need new energy and new capacity at some point and “Site C would be the least expensive of the alternatives and its cost advantages would increase with the passing decades as inflation makes alternatives more costly.”
However, “the panel cannot conclude that the power of Site C is needed on the schedule presented.”
There are also important environmental, social, economic, health and heritage costs, panel members concluded.
Risks to fish and wildlife include harmful and irreversible effects on migratory birds and species such as the western toad and short-eared owl.
“Justification must rest on an unambiguous need for the power and analyses showing its financial costs being sufficiently attractive as to make tolerable the bearing of substantial environmental, social and other costs,” it says.
High costs yet alternatives not considered
The report notes that BC Hydro has not looked closely enough at alternatives such as geothermal energy.
“The panel concludes that a failure to pursue research over the last 30 years into B.C.’s geothermal resources has left B.C Hydro without information about a resource that BC Hydro thinks may offer up to 700 megawatts of form, economic power with low environmental costs,” it says
The estimated $7.9 billion cost raised questions, but panel members said they do not have the information, time or resources to look at the accuracy of cost estimates and recommended that, if the project proceeds, costs should be examined in detail by the province’s independent regulator, the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC).
The Liberal government previously exempted Site C from BCUC scrutiny and, although the recommendation was applauded by groups such as the Peace Valley Environment Association, Energy Minister Bill Bennett immediately threw cold water on the idea.
“This project has been poked, prodded and analyzed for the last 35 years,” he said
“I think subjecting it to another review after all the years it has been studied, is not a good use of public money.”
Bennett believes BC Hydro will keep to its budget, despite reports showing mega-dams around the world often run 50 per cent over budget.
BC Hydro has included $1.52 billion for inflation and contingencies, he said.
“Of course with large projects like these, there’s no guarantees, but with such a large contingency fund and such a large fund for inflation and all the work that BC Hydro has done, I think we can have confidence in that final number,” he said.
The proposal must gain the approval of the federal and provincial governments and Bennett said he will take a recommendation to cabinet this fall after further environmental and First Nations consultations.
Indecisiveness not all around
Bennett, who said he views the Joint Panel review as “mostly positive,” emphasized that he has not yet made up his mind about the dam, which, if approved, would be the most expensive project built in the province.
“I am right square in the middle of this,” he said.
NDP leader John Horgan said the report shows the Liberal approach to Site C has been reckless and does not have a foundation in the realities of the North American energy market.
“The challenge ratepayers have is they are facing 28 per cent rate increases over the next five years and we have a government proposing to spend $8 billion on power that we may not need, at a time we don’t have the money to spend,” he said.
Former BCUC chair Mark Jaccard, professor in the school of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, said he is impressed the panel tried to address big questions such as climate impact.
“But I was a bit frustrated that the panel waffled so much. I think I wanted them to say yeah or nay,” he said.
It is a difficult decision, because there are compelling arguments on both sides, and politicians will ultimately have to take a stand, but it would have been good to have a definitive opinion from experts who listened to presentations at the hearings, Jaccard said.
“They are trying to say all the things for all the people,” he said.
Signs of optimism
In the Peace Valley, the report is generating some optimism and Andrea Morison, Peace Valley Environment Association coordinator, applauded recommendations that show the panel has significant concerns about impacts.
“It shows the proponent has not fully demonstrated the need for the project and that there are other sources they should be looking at. Another key point is they can’t conclude the accuracy of the cost estimate,” she said.
Morison believes that once Bennett has studied the report he will decide to follow the key recommendation of referring it to BCUC for a cost review.
“One thing we can count on with politicians is that they do change their minds and it’s not solely his decision,” she said.
Hudson’s Hope Mayor Gwen Johansson also wants Bennett to pass the project to BCUC for scrutiny.
“It would be disappointing if he did not follow that recommendation,” she said.
Treaty 8 First Nations Tribal Chief Liz Logan said the core message to government is why build a project that is not needed. Alternative solutions such as wind power or smaller hydro projects must be considered instead, Logan said.
“We are still going to be vocal about it,” said Logan, who hopes British Columbians throughout the province will put pressure on the province.
“This project doesn’t just affect us on the ground, it’s going to affect the pocketbook of every British Columbian,” she said, adding she wants the project’s cumulative effects studied.
Those living in the area that will be affected by the dam see the report as validation of their belief that the adverse effects outweigh any benefits.
Spring is finally coming to the valley, said Ross Peck, a retired guide outfitter whose family has lived in the area since 1924. “The grass is greening up, the leaves are about to pop and the valley is full of animals. I saw the first osprey today,” he said.
If the dam goes ahead, part of his property will be flooded, roads will cut close to his home and Peck believes he would have to leave.
“I don’t think we could sit on our deck and watch them clearcutting for the reservoir,” he said.
Esther Pederson, who would lose part of her farmland and her home to the dam, has little faith in any consultation process.
“The consultation so far has been ‘do you want to sell your farm now or later,’ ” she said.
Armed with the concerns raised in the report, it should be possible to stall approval at least until the next election, Pederson said.
“It could be dragged out forever and the First Nations people are lined up to take the government to court,” she said.
Photo: Peace Valley courtesy of Andrea Morison and Don Hoffmann.