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Construction begins on the new section of Highway 29 at Farrell Creek at the Site C Clean Energy Project in British Columbia, in November, 2020.Courtesy of Site C Clean Energy Project

One of the first major tests of B.C.’s NDP government in the new year will be the cabinet decision of whether to scrap the half-built Site C dam megaproject. In any other year, that would be a monumental choice.

“If this was a normal year, it would be the biggest issue on government’s agenda,” Premier John Horgan said in an interview. “But this is not a normal year.”

The Premier said he expects 2021 to continue to revolve around managing the pandemic, relegating other significant challenges to “garden variety” issues.

The arrival of the pandemic last spring called for unprecedented action from governments around the world. The B.C. government approved $10-billion in emergency measures to boost health care and social spending, while launching relief packages for individuals and businesses as 400,000 people lost their jobs.

Still, the decision his government faces on Site C is massive. There are thousands of construction jobs on the line but also significant risks of runaway costs on what is already the costliest public works project in the province’s history.

An independent review by special adviser Peter Milburn is due to report “in a matter of days,” the Premier said on Friday, but it will be reviewed by cabinet and Treasury Board before his findings will be made public, likely in January.

Construction began on the hydroelectric dam in 2015 under a Liberal government. The NDP government that took power in 2017 reluctantly committed to continue, arguing then that the project was past the point of no return. Now, after more than half of the $10.7-billion budget has been spent, the Crown corporation in charge of building the dam has admitted that technical problems have emerged that require an updated budget and timeline for the whole project.

BC Hydro has not specified the problem, but technical documents indicate that water has been seeping into “various ground defects” and affecting stability on the right bank of the Peace River, which anchors the dam, the powerhouse and the spillway. It spent months trying to engineer a solution before publicly admitting it had run into trouble.

The Premier would not say under what circumstances he would cancel the project, saying instead he wants to see what Mr. Milburn concludes.

“It was a very difficult decision back in 2017. It’s made more difficult now,” he said. “I’ve resisted going through my mind what would the scenario be [to cancel]. I want to know what the actual circumstances are.”

There have been well-documented concerns about the stability of the right bank long before construction began. Mr. Horgan said Hydro’s ability to measure the potential risk has changed, though.

“They now have more precise measuring equipment. They were looking at potential impacts of seismic activity. They saw risk. They tried to identify how they could mitigate the risk, and that’s what this process has been all about,” he said.

“It’s sufficient to have a review of what the challenges might be over the longer term and that’s what Hydro has been involved in for many months now, and that’s what Peter Milburn is reviewing.”

Meanwhile, the Premier said, he is focused on what adaptations to life with COVID-19 have emerged from this year that are worth preserving – such as the transition to virtual networking – and where the greatest needs will be in the year ahead. “What do we embrace from what we’ve experienced over the past year, and where [do] we focus our attention now?”

He said he wants his government to tackle youth unemployment, and to ensure that growth in the province’s industrial economy is balanced with growth in technology and clean energy – the so-called new economy.

British Columbians, by and large, accepted the government-imposed restrictions on travel and social gatherings. The school system was suspended, then reopened. B.C.’s employment rate has almost recovered. Still, tens of thousands of citizens have tested positive for COVID-19, while more than 700 have died because of the virus.

Cities have filled with makeshift homeless shelters in parks, as the province worked to buy up motels for emergency housing. Mr. Horgan then opted to add a snap election to the mix. Voters approved of his government’s handling of the pandemic in October, allowing the NDP to exchange a minority government for a large majority. Finally, the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine offered the promise of a better year ahead.

Although the latest fiscal update suggests the worst of the global recession is now behind the province, Mr. Horgan said he expects the pressures – on people and on the economy – will continue to mount in the coming year.

“We found just the glimmers of optimism in what would have been, in any other year, the most devastating of quarterly reports,” he said. The effect of the pandemic “takes precedence over all of these other issues – they are garden variety, quite frankly, compared to the challenges that people are facing right now.”

The 2017 decision to proceed with the Site C dam brought tears and deep divisions within his caucus and cabinet. As he prepares to revisit the issue, Mr. Horgan is more sanguine.

“I am genuine when I say this: Not every breeze is a hurricane.”

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