The NDP government is pledging to continue construction on the Site C dam while an independent panel decides whether it makes more economic sense for B.C. to go ahead with the $8.8-billion project, mothball it until further notice or scrap it in favour of alternative power sources.
The New Democrats fulfilled an election campaign promise on Wednesday by asking the British Columbia Utilities Commission to examine the BC Hydro project before issuing a six-week interim report on its finances and a final report by Nov. 1. In the meantime, roughly 2,200 people will continue working at the site in northeastern B.C.
However, the provincial government will not sign any new contracts, Energy Minister Michelle Mungall told reporters at a news conference in Victoria.
Those workers will continue construction, which BC Hydro estimates is costing about $60-million each month.
"To immediately stop the project would have impacts on them, but we also don't want to pre-empt the answer that the BC Utilities Commission is going be putting forward," Ms. Mungall said. "We don't want to speculate on what that's going to be, they may be telling us to move ahead with Site C … ."
The BCUC will decide how it plans to consult the public, experts and stakeholders, but is unlikely to conduct "court-like" public hearings due to the condensed timeline, Ms. Mungall said.
The panel must also determine whether BC Hydro is currently on target and on budget to complete the dam in the next seven years, as well as how much it would cost ratepayers if the project was delayed up until that point but still able to be restarted, if need be.After the BCUC is finished its review, cabinet will make a final decision "in short order" based on that work and considerations of First Nations rights and environmental impacts, Ms. Mungall said.
"We absolutely appreciate that a lot of people's lives are on hold," she said, without giving a timeline for the government's ultimate decision.
Ms. Mungall denied the ongoing delays to the project would cost the province an extra $630-million, as former BC Hydro president and CEO Jessica McDonald asserted in June before the NDP took power. Ms. Mungall declined to say how this review would affect the costs of the project.
Ms. McDonald, an appointee of the former Liberal government who was fired two weeks ago, had said any delay this summer would cause a "domino effect" that would derail a critical point in the construction timeline – diverting the Peace River in September, 2019. Ms. Mungall and an associate deputy minister told reporters that new research by the Transportation Ministry shows they can still meet that deadline by rerouting a planned highway. They added the contracts for this particular work do not have to be closed on in the next three months.
The New Democrats have not said what they intend to do if Site C is ruled economically viable, but the Greens, whose three MLAs are supporting the minority NDP government, say they are directly opposed to building such destructive and unnecessary "20th-century mega projects."
On Wednesday, Green Leader Andrew Weaver, who championed the project years ago as an adviser to then-premier Gordon Campbell, said his party told the NDP what they wanted included in the upcoming review, however the cabinet crafted the final draft, which the Greens did not see until it was made public.
"Our goal all along has been to ensure that a decision such as this, where the impacts are felt by so many, is made with the best information available," Mr. Weaver said in an e-mailed statement. "This is a step in that direction."
Mike Bernier, BC Liberal MLA for Peace River South, said in a statement that the NDP have created a "fake review" to appease their Green partners and stop a project that will meet the long-term energy needs of the province.
Harry Swain, an associate fellow at the University of Victoria who authored a report the B.C. government used to green light Site C, said Wednesday that he was worried the upcoming independent review will base future need for the project on a faulty BC Hydro forecast from last summer that estimated demand will increase "two per cent a year forever."
"This is not happening," said Dr. Swain, who has since become a Site C critic. "Demand has not increased since 2005 – it's flat all over North America."
Mark Jaccard, a professor at Simon Fraser University who chaired the BCUC from 1992 to 1997, said the argument that other renewable energies will provide cheaper and cheaper energy over the course of Site C's lifespan doesn't take into account how hard it is to generate this power on command and send it through the grid. Hydro projects like Site C, with large reservoirs of water, can slow down and ramp up such production.
"Solar electricity and wind electricity is non dispatchable – it is only created when nature decides to have the wind blow or the sun shine," he said.