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Good morning, Wendy Cox in Vancouver here.

In 1967, engineers tasked with securing British Columbia’s energy future declared that they had settled on a spot on the Peace River where the province would build its third and final hydroelectric dam, the last jewel in the vision to generate economic growth with cheap power.

Site E, as it was known, was close to the Alberta border and was preferred because it offered firm terrain. But it was expensive.

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In 1978, the government settled on the more cost-effect, but less ideal, Site C. Engineers knew then – and have since – that Site C’s location wasn’t perfect.

Legislative reporter Justine Hunter’s piece today outlines the comprehensive examination of the challenges posed by the terrain underneath the megaproject and demonstrates that the fiscal and geotechnical risks of the site have long been understood. Her reporting is important context to have as the provincial government awaits two reports, both due by the end of the year, into whether the project remains viable, despite the five years and $6-billion already sunk into its construction.

This past July, then energy minister Bruce Ralston said he was concerned about construction delays and rising costs on the project. He blamed it on complications from the pandemic and appointed former deputy finance minister Peter Milburn to review the project.

“I think we can all appreciate COVID-19 has created challenges none of us could have foreseen months ago,” Mr. Ralston said at a news conference. He later went on to remind reporters that it was the BC Liberals that had approved the project.

Premier John Horgan issued the same reminder in December, 2017 after a review of the project. His government concluded construction would carry on, but that the dam wouldn’t have been one that New Democrats would have started.

Justine’s reporting shows that it will be difficult for the NDP to continue to divorce itself from ownership of the project: Since the late 1960s, it was clear that building a dam where Site C is situated would be costly and with unique challenges. The NDP has had two chances to back out of the project, once when it was first elected and then again after its own review.

Mr. Horgan now says he only became aware of Site C’s serious geotechnical problems and escalating costs this past summer. But the oversight his government promised meant that senior bureaucrats – the deputy minister of finance at the time, Lori Wanamaker, and Les MacLaren, the assistant deputy minister for Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources – should have been aware of the growing concerns.

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Documents uncovered as a result of an FOI request by the Narwhal show that right from the start of the NDP’s watch, questions were raised about the management of the project. The annual progress report tabled by the technical advisory board in early 2018 accepted BC Hydro’s business case for the dam as reasonable, but “aspirational” due to risks that it said needed to be further assessed.

In spring 2019, a year before the pandemic, BC Hydro was acknowledging rising costs and had asked Treasury Board for the last of the contingency fund – $858.1-million. The utility also flagged that there might be geotechnical risks that would have to be addressed.

In BC Hydro’s 2019 quarterly progress report for July through September, the utility flagged “certain unforeseen financial impacts.” Just days before last Christmas, BC Hydro concluded that more concrete would be needed to increase stability below the powerhouse, spillway and core areas of the dam.

By this July, BC Hydro publicly conceded the project was in trouble and blamed COVID-19, saying public health measures had reduced the pace of construction. The problems with the foundation were included as a footnote.

Mr. Milburn’s report was commissioned and Mr. Horgan has said his opinion could include a recommendation to cancel the project. BC Hydro is also preparing a revised budget.

Any further discussion of what should happen with the project was successfully deflected as the parties battled in an election campaign.

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Now, as Justine writes, Mr. Horgan’s majority government begins as his minority did: with the question of what to do about Site C.

“The difference is that this time, it is his project,” she writes.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

Around the West:

COVID-19: Provinces across western Canada continue to set records for COVID-19 infections as they impose more restrictions designed to curb the spread.

Manitoba and Alberta are leading the country by some measures as infections continue to accelerate and officials in both provinces complain that some people are skirting the rules. Saskatchewan set a record last weekend with 307 cases in a single day before decreasing modestly throughout the week, and in B.C., infections cracked 700 a day twice in the past week.

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That has prompted all four governments to announce new measures in recent days, but they are taking significantly different approaches.

Manitoba is under a strict lockdown. The province earlier ordered non-essential businesses such as restaurants and gyms to close and restricted social gatherings. But Premier Brian Pallister said some people and businesses continued to flout the rules, prompting the government to ban any visitors to private homes and forbid big box stores, which are permitted to remain open, from selling non-essential goods such as consumer electronics.

British Columbia expanded rules that were in place for the Lower Mainland – including the closure of businesses such as fitness studios and a ban on social gatherings – across the province, while also mandating masks after earlier rejecting such a measure. The province is also advising against all travel.

And Saskatchewan implemented a provincewide mask requirement and restricted household gatherings to five people as health officials released modelling that predicted the province could see nearly 5,000 more cases under the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario: 469,000 over six months.

Alberta has stood out as a notable exception as the province continues to resist stricter measures that have been adopted elsewhere. Alberta has no provincewide mask requirement, though some communities have bylaws of their own. Social gatherings are capped at 15 people, higher than in many other jurisdictions. And while the province recently ordered restaurants and bars to close early – something that B.C. did in September and Manitoba did more than a month ago – Premier Jason Kenney has maintained that widespread business closures would be more harmful than the virus itself.

Instead, Mr. Kenney has appealed to Albertans’ sense of “personal responsibility” to follow public health advice that, for some people, continues to fall on deaf ears. The province recently released statistics that showed troubling percentages of people continuing to go about their lives – heading to work, attending parties, going shopping – when they have symptoms.

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Alberta’s hospitals and intensive-care beds quickly are filling up, and increasing backlogs for long-term care beds are creating problems in hospitals.

In some cases, the restrictions have caused confusion as people attempt to interpret them. In B.C., officials struggled to explain restrictions on private gatherings, while live theatre companies wondered why they were forced to close while movie theatres and other businesses continue to operate.

BANFF TRAIN: For decades, taking the train was the way to go to Banff. Train ridership eventually declined, and passenger service between Calgary and Banff stopped in 1990 after Ottawa cut its funding to Via Rail, which in turn reduced passenger rail routes across the country. But now, there is a proposal to bring back that reality that is attracting attention at multiple levels of government. Kelly Cryderman looked at the pitch to build a train from Calgary to Banff and how it fits into the area’s long-standing desires to address traffic congestion and pollution. It is also providing a rare point of agreement between the Alberta and federal governments.

OPIOIDS: Vancouver wants to become the first city in North American to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs under a new proposal aimed at reducing overdose deaths. City council will consider a motion that could prompt the city to ask the federal government to grant an exemption under federal drug laws. Mayor Kennedy Stewart said it’s an urgent step that would allow the city to fully embrace a health-focused approach to substance use. Health officials in B.C. and elsewhere have come out in support of the decriminalization of drugs, as has the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

BEARS: Researchers in B.C. are using artificial intelligence to identify and track grizzly bears. The project, called BearID, is designed to create a “non-invasive” technique for them to study the animals. The system will use deep learning, a method of artificial intelligence, to detect and identify brown bears from photographs.


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Kelly Cryderman on Ottawa’s plans for net zero emissions: “But ultimately, if the federal government is serious, there will have to be collective decisions made about how to divvy up the burden of reducing emissions. Canada’s federal system means the permutations and combinations for fights in this process are endless. Hashing out how the country will reach national GHG-reduction targets while not adding to Western alienation will be a political balancing act of the highest order.”

Stephen Legault on Alberta’s new narrative: “Albertans are being hit by the triple whammy of COVID-19, climate change and an economic nightmare deepened by slumping oil prices. At our own peril, we buy into the same old stories, refusing to accept how quickly the world is transitioning toward a net-zero energy economy, and the consequences that COVID-19 will have on that transition. "

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