It could be time for Plan B on Site C
Last piece of the NDP-Greens bargain involved creating a review strategy for a dam neither party sees as necessary to B.C.'s future, writes Justine Hunter
Instead of packing their home in the face of an eviction notice, Ken and Arlene Boon are sowing crops for a fall harvest, as the family has done for three generations.
The Boons learned they were to be forced from their homestead on the banks of the Peace River seven years ago, when the B.C. government announced it would proceed with the Site C dam. Just weeks before what was to be their last day, a temporary reprieve by BC Hydro was delivered by e-mail.
"We probably should have been packing, but we just seeded some of BC Hydro's right-of-way – some oats and grass seed," Ken Boon said in an interview. "Where things are going, I don't think they are going to be building a road here this year."
Construction on the $8.8-billion hydroelectric project in British Columbia's northeast is proceeding, but the result of the May 9 provincial election has generated uncertainty about whether the project will ever be finished.
For the Boons and other residents who had defied Hydro's expropriation plans, that uncertainty has been met with joy. But for the 2,252 workers on the site – crews primarily from B.C. but many from Alberta – the fear of layoffs hangs in the air.
B.C.'s Liberal government had grand ambitions for the project, offering to sell power to Alberta to help with its transition from coal-generated electricity. The Alberta NDP government never warmed up to the idea, and now with the future in jeopardy, it is just as well that Alberta did not include that power in its energy plans.
Drilling, construction and excavation on BC Hydro's massive project is moving at a rapid pace that the province set before the election. Hydro maintains the Boons and other holdouts will still be forced out by the end of June.
Liberal Premier Christy Clark vowed to get the project past the point of no return before the election. Whether it has hit that mark will soon be tested.
With the likely prospect now of a New Democrat minority government propped up by the BC Green Party, the project is expected to undergo a review by an independent regulator. Within months, the new government would have to decide whether the project is too far along to cancel or, if not, whether to send those workers home.
NDP Leader John Horgan and Green Leader Andrew Weaver have signed an accord that would allow the NDP to form a minority government and have vowed to topple the Liberals in a confidence vote later this month. Nothing is certain, but an NDP-led government could be in place by July. And that government would "immediately" direct the B.C. Utilities Commission to review the project.
The section of the NDP-Green accord that deals with Site C was the last piece of the bargain before Mr. Weaver would sign on.
"I was very suspicious of the NDP's position to send it to the BCUC," he said in an interview. He calculated that the NDP, with its strong base of support from the labour movement, would be squeamish about actually killing the project.
So he consulted with the head of BC Hydro, Jessica McDonald, and was told such a review would take nine to 12 months. "I argued to Mr. Horgan, this is just a sham, nine months or a year – you can't go back at that point."
To allay the Greens' concerns, the NDP negotiating team produced a draft set of instructions that would direct the regulator to reach a decision in six weeks. The review will be limited to combing through BC Hydro's budget estimates for the project and assessing the cost of stopping it.
Ms. McDonald would not respond to interview requests. Her office offered a statement on her behalf that makes no commitment but acknowledges the project is in flux. "We are aware of the agreement announced between the NDP and Green party, including the provision to send Site C to the BCUC for review if they form government. As a Crown corporation, it is important for us to respect the process that will play out in the coming weeks, but we do not comment on government policy."
BC Hydro has already made significant progress and is well past the $1.5-billion mark in spending. (The figures have not been updated since December.)
Mr. Weaver acknowledged "it's not impossible" the project will go ahead. However, he is confident that it will not stand up to independent scrutiny.
In 2014, a federal-provincial joint review panel concluded that the province will need more power, and that the Site C dam appears to be the most economic solution with the smallest output of greenhouse-gas emissions.
However, the panel could not measure the true cost of the project nor whether B.C. will actually need all the power it would produce. It recommended that if provincial governments move ahead despite significant environmental impacts, further independent review on BC Hydro's cost estimates, energy demand forecasts and conservation plan would be needed.
"The proponent [BC Hydro] has not fully demonstrated the need for the project," the panel found. Eager to push ahead, the BC Liberals refused to allow that independent review to proceed.
In a letter this week to BC Hydro's president, Ms. McDonald, Mr. Horgan asked that the eviction notices be set aside until certainty around the project is achieved. As well, he urged the Crown corporation not to sign the next major contract – due this year – "until a new government has gained the confidence of the legislature to govern and decide future policy regarding the Site C project."
Not just Site C is in question. B.C.'s Greens and NDP together are sending ripples of concern through the resource sector. They want to stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion between Edmonton and Burnaby. Mr. Weaver in particular has heaped scorn on Ms. Clark's efforts to secure a liquefied natural gas industry. The future of B.C.'s economy lies in clean jobs, Mr. Weaver says, not building fossil-fuel infrastructure.
The question becomes: What construction jobs would be safe under an NDP government?
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the BC Building Trades Council, said he expects to see an alternative path to construction jobs if the big pipelines, LNG plants and this dam are all sunk.
"They have to show they have a jobs plan that is meaningful, for a lot of development," he said.
"Construction workers build projects, we build infrastructure so others can go to work."
He pointed to the NDP commitment to more light rapid transit in Metro Vancouver, and the need to upgrade existing BC Hydro facilities.
But because BC Hydro balked at a pact with organized labour on the construction of Site C, he is not going to war with Mr. Horgan over the project.
"That project has been problematic since the first shovel was in the ground," Mr. Sigurdson said. "Today we have got hundreds of workers on that project who are not from British Columbia, and we have British Columbian skilled workers sitting at home, wondering why they are not on that job."
The decision to have an open-shop model, means the labour movement will not be putting much pressure on the NDP to save Site C.
Mr. Boon, after seven years with an eviction notice hanging over his head, is feeling optimistic now. He understands why the NDP would not want to halt the project immediately, but he believes the review will conclude that it should be killed.
"I think this is the beginning of the end of Site C."
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