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The area of the Peace River where the proposed Site C hydro development dam would be built near Fort St. John, B.C., on Jan. 17, 2013. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
The area of the Peace River where the proposed Site C hydro development dam would be built near Fort St. John, B.C., on Jan. 17, 2013. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Ultimate fate of Site C dam does not hinge on new report Add to ...

A proposal for a massive hydroelectric dam on the Peace River that has been the subject of debate for more than 30 years will reach a turning point on Thursday with the release of a report that will recommend whether governments should approve it.

BC Hydro says the $7.9-billion Site C dam, which would flood 55 square kilometres of land, would generate electricity the province needs.

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The Site C megaproject will not live or die on what is in Thursday’s report from a joint review panel established by the federal and provincial environment ministries. The federal and provincial governments will have the last word, although officials contacted on Wednesday were unclear about what would happen if the two levels of government reach conflicting decisions. Lucille Jamault, a spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, said the project could not proceed without permits and authorizations from both governments.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark has said she supports Site C, but Energy Minister Bill Bennett says the cabinet will not make a final decision until October.

On Wednesday, key figures were withholding comment. “We’re waiting to see what’s in the panel report, and its recommendations and we’ll take it from there,” said David Conway, a spokesperson for BC Hydro.

A spokesman for Mr. Bennett said he will comment after the report is out.

But in late April, the minister sounded thoughtfully ambivalent.

“It would appear we are going to need a project or projects the size of Site C to meet the demand that will be there,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I have a very keen interest and a commitment to the people of the province that I’m going to make sure that if I recommend to cabinet that the Site C project go forward, that it is the best possible choice for us here in British Columbia to acquire that 1,100 megawatts of capacity.”

John Horgan, the new leader of the B.C. New Democratic Party, said this week that Site C is a good project, but highlighted caveats that include First Nations opposition, the potential destruction of agricultural land, and his view that the province does not need the power. He said he would like further assessment of the plan.

Hydro has said B.C.’s overall energy demand is expected to rise 40 per cent over the next 20 years.

“While the project has the potential to result in some adverse effects,” it would also provide important economic, environmental and social benefits to British Columbians and Canadians, Hydro said in its final report to the review panel.

The utility said they include reliable electricity, employment and economic development, and less production of greenhouse-gases than other energy options. Hydro also pointed to a “potential for accommodation” of First Nations concerns over the project.

Mark Jaccard, former chair of the B.C. Utilities Commission, said the debate over Site C has shadowed his entire professional career.

He recalled writing his masters thesis on a Site C hearing around 1979 and 1980, and that he then “tried to forget about it” as he went to earn a PhD in France. When he returned to B.C., the debate was still going on and continued as he became a professor at Simon Fraser University – he is in the School of Resource and Environmental Management – and chaired the utilities commission.

Mr. Jaccard said he is ambivalent about the project. He is mindful of the impact, but sees the hydroelectricity it would produce as a good CO2-free option for meeting the province’s needs.

“Site C is a fantastic conundrum. Even someone like me, [who is] pretty environmentally oriented, is not entirely sure you should not build that dam,” he said.

Of Thursday’s report, he said: “It’s another step along the way if a government is doing as Bill Bennett is, which is trying to follow due process.

“Obviously, if they come out with a really damning report, it’s going to make it more politically difficult to go ahead with this.”

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