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B.C. Utilities Commission denies NDP consulted it about Site C

Construction at the site of the Site C hydroelectric dam in March, 2017.

Site C Clean Energy Project

The provincial agency that the British Columbia NDP is counting on for an expedited review of the controversial Site C hydroelectric project is disputing leader John Horgan's assertion that he has consulted it about completing the report on a quick deadline.

The NDP has long voiced concerns about the need for the $8.8-billion dam, which is already under construction and employing more than 2,000 workers along the Peace River in northeastern B.C. The party campaigned on a promise to send the project to the B.C. Utilities Commission for a fresh review.

Mr. Horgan, who expects to become premier as part of a power-sharing agreement with the third-place Greens, said the commission will have just six weeks to review the project. Last week, he said: "We've been in touch with the leadership of the B.C. Utilities Commission."

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However, commission spokesperson Katharine Carlsen said that was not the case.

"There have been no discussions with the B.C. NDP about a Site C review," Ms. Carlsen wrote in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

Asked about the discrepancy, Jen Holmwood, the deputy communications director for the NDP caucus, said in a statement: "We have reached out to the BCUC and have meetings set up in the near future to discuss Site C and a variety of other issues."

The New Democrats have said work at Site C will continue during the review, although Mr. Horgan has called for some aspects of the construction to be delayed.

BC Hydro says it has spent $1.75-billion to date.

The NDP's agreement with the Greens commits to refer Site C to the commission immediately on the question of economic viability and "consequences for British Columbians in the context of the current supply and demand conditions prevailing in the B.C. market."

Mr. Horgan has said he wants the commission to report within six weeks and produce a more detailed report within three months.

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Created in 1980, the utilities commission regulates natural gas and electricity utilities in B.C. The Liberal government passed legislation in 2010 that exempted Site C from a commission review.

In 2014, then-energy minister Bill Bennett was dismissive of the idea of sending Site C to review, saying the commission lacked the capacity to review such a large project.

Ms. Carlsen wrote in an e-mail exchange that the commission could conduct a review at the request of government. On the issue of when it could be completed, she wrote "timelines for reviews of any matter may vary depending on the nature and scope of the work required," adding that deadlines may be set for particular reviews.

She wrote that the commission would establish resources as required depending on the nature and scope of the work and engage external consultants as needed.

On Tuesday, B.C. Premier Christy Clark expressed doubts about the proposed six-week review of Site C, saying it was difficult to understand how a review on such a timeline could make any reasonable conclusion.

"Generally speaking, reviews undertaken by the BC Utilities Commission take significantly longer than six weeks to complete," Ms. Clark wrote in a letter to Mr. Horgan that was released to the media. "Some estimates have suggested that a thorough review on a project of [Site C's] size and scope could take up to one year to complete."

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Len Kelsey, the former commission chair, said in an interview on Tuesday that narrow terms of reference for a review would allow the commission to assess Site C "in a short period of time."

He said the terms of reference would cover the scope and the style of the review – whether it was based on only reviewing documents or a more traditional commission process with intervenors, submissions and responses to submissions.

Mr. Kelsey, who was a commissioner and chair of the BCUC for 12 years and left a year ago, said an expedited review would be difficult with broader terms of reference and a broader public process.

Vancouver energy lawyer David Austin said he thought six weeks was reasonable for a report. "I look at it as requiring six weeks to get an idea of what the numbers are like and then three months to complete the necessary due diligence of the numbers," he said. "Maybe there's nothing wrong. Maybe there's something wrong. Until you get a look at the real numbers, you don't know."

Ms. Clark also wrote that she had asked BC Hydro to extend the leases on a pair of homes facing demolition for the project to July 15. Last week, Mr. Horgan requested BC Hydro delay evictions of two families and not commit to additional contracts without penalty-free cancellation clauses until the review of the project can be completed.

BC Hydro said the NDP delay could lead to $630-million in additional costs.

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