‘Dereliction of Duty’: Chair of Site C Panel on B.C.’s Failure to Investigate Alternatives to Mega Dam

Harry Swain, chair of Site C panel

Part 1 of DeSmog Canada’s exclusive sit-down interview with Harry Swain, the man who chaired the panel tasked with reviewing BC Hydro’s Site C dam, sparked a firestorm of activity on Tuesday.

Energy Minister Bill Bennett responded to Swain’s critique in the Globe and Mail, the B.C. NDP issued a statement on Swain’s comments and an environmental law expert called the statements “unprecedented.”

Martin Olszynski, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary, said Swain’s comments are extremely rare.  

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that a panel member has spoken about a previous report in this manner,” Olszynski, an expert in environmental assessment, said. “To my knowledge, it’s unprecedented.”

The concerns Swain raises are not unusual though, Olszynski pointed out.

The course of actions taken by the B.C. and federal governments in this case are not atypical,” he said. “They very often will ignore, or pay only lip service to, the recommendations of their expert panels. If you talked to other people who have served on similar panels — if they were willing to talk — they might express similar frustration.”

Geothermal Recommendations for B.C. Ignored …. For 32 Years

Certainly, the issue of recommendations being ignored is a live one in the case of the 1,100-megawatt Site C dam proposed for the Peace River. The dam is facing six legal challenges, including one that alleges that Cabinet erred in dismissing key portions of the joint review panel’s findings on the project.  

But beyond that, one of the key issues the panel raised in its report was the B.C. government’s failure to follow a recommendation to investigate alternatives to the dam, particularly geothermal — a recommendation made 32 years ago by the B.C. Utilities Commission when it first turned down the Site C proposal.

The province or the province and its wholly owned subsidiary BC Hydro should have taken to heart the admonitions of the utilities commission 32 years ago and done some of the basic work that would allow an industry to develop,” Swain told DeSmog Canada. “But they didn’t do it, so there we are.”

In speaking notes obtained by DeSmog Canada, the province prepares to deflect questions about why it hasn’t pursued geothermal.

While geothermal energy has a role to play in British Columbia, it has been slow to develop and has not developed the track record to reliably meet today’s growing demand,” read the notes prepared for the government’s Site C announcement in December.

Asked what he makes of that statement, Swain responded: “Dereliction of duty.”

The B.C. government has the principal responsibility for lands and resources under the constitution, Swain said.

And in that sense, the province owes — in my view — an obligation to the citizens of B.C. to do a lot of basic mapping and exploration,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a major resource industry in this country that didn’t start without governments doing some of the basic work.”

Canada is the only country around the Pacific Ring of Fire that does not produce geothermal power at a commercial scale.

Vast Amount of Data Available From Gas Drillers on Geothermal Potential

In the past three decades, technological advances have led to the discovery of even more geothermal potential in B.C. — including in the Peace Country, where the Site C dam is proposed.

Up in the Peace, in the very strata that are being drilled for natural gas, there’s a lot of hot water,” Swain said. “Moreover, since the well logs of exploration and drilling companies are supposed to be deposited with the provincial government, there is a vast amount of information available. It was surprising to me that no attempt had been made to exploit that information.”

The challenge is that currently BC Hydro, the province’s crown energy corporation, is forbidden by law to involve itself in projects beyond big hydro and large transmission projects.

All of the other production stuff is to come from the holy private sector,” Swain said.

To prevent future governments and panels from being “seriously uninformed” again, the panel recommended that, regardless of the decision taken on Site C, BC Hydro establish a research and development budget for the characterization of geographically diverse renewable resources.

It’s probably fair to say that institutionally Hydro really, really wants to build this,” Swain said. “And that’s perfectly understandable. If you ask the Ford company, ‘what would you like to do?’ they’ll say ‘build cars.’ If you ask Boeing ‘what’s the solution to our transportation problems?’ they’ll say ‘airplanes.’ ”

The Canadian Geothermal Energy Association has argued geothermal can meet B.C.’s future energy needs at a lower cost than Site C with fewer environmental impacts. The association has called for a one-year moratorium on Site C to allow time for further due diligence on geothermal.

The LNG Wild Card: Inconsistency in Province’s Statements

One of the B.C. government’s go-to talking points on Site C has been that the dam is needed to power the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. In a Jan. 30th letter to the Peace River Regional District, Energy Minister Bill Bennett wrote that liquefied natural gas facilities would drive more electricity demand than the Joint Review Panel accounted for in its report (due to an addition error).

Swain says that, although there was an addition error in the report, it doesn’t change the conclusion: demand for the dam wasn’t proven.

“Given skepticism about LNG and about demand elasticity, I see no reason to modify the conclusion,” Swain said. “Frankly, I think their low-demand figure was probably overstated. So far there is no evidence that even their low usage scenario is likely to take place.”

Beyond that, if the province’s original LNG dreams had come to pass as quickly as they'd stated and if the plants had relied on grid electricity (two big ifs), that power would have been needed well ahead of Site C's in-service date of 2024. A single LNG plant can require as much as 700 megawatts of electricity to run the giant compressors required to cool gas to 163 degrees below zero; at least 10 plants are proposed for B.C.’s coast, but it's unclear whether any will come to fruition.

If the initial scenario took place, the power demand would arise a long time before Site C could be built,” Swain said. “There really wasn’t a compatibility between the two statements of the province if you think of one statement about the development of the LNG industry and the second about the timeframe in which Site C was to be built. By their own story, they had an inconsistency.”

Site C Dam ‘No Ordinary Project’

About 20 B.C. local governments have asked the government to send Site C to the B.C. Utilities Commission to further investigate demand and costs — a recommendation made in the panel's report and echoed by Swain in Part 1 of his interview with DeSmog Canada.  

With a price tag of $8.8 billion, Site C would constitute the largest expenditure of public money in B.C. history.

Site C is not an ordinary project,” the panel wrote in its report.

Swain said British Columbians should pay attention because “it’s going to effect them in the pocket book,” “destroy valuable bits of landscape” and “affect the constitutionally protected rights of First Nations.”

He suggested British Columbians consider the dam in light of the alternatives.

Have we really pushed conservation and efficiency as far as they can go? And the answer is no,” he said. “What other kinds of generation or energy production are available and what are their costs and benefits?”

Swain called B.C.’s refusal to consider its entitlement under the Columbia River Treaty “inexplicable” and noted the verdict is still out on how British Columbians will react to electricity prices going up 30 per cent in the next three years (demand could decrease, for example).

Ultimately, the way forward needs to be one that considers all the options, not just large hydro dams.

The province has defined the role of Hydro as being very limited,” Swain said. “If this were not the BC Hydro company, but simply … the ‘energy company’ whose job it was to make sure that demand was satisfied at reasonable prices regardless of source, regardless of who got to build and own, regardless of those kinds of extraneous considerations, we might have a more balanced view.”