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Arlene Boon, whose grandfather bought the family property along the Peace River outside of Fort St. John, and her husband Ken walk along their property on January 16, 2013. The flooding and safety zones for the proposed Site C Hydro Development Dam near Fort St. John on the Peace River would gobble up their property which they refuse to sell to BC Hydro.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government has shielded its Site C dam proposal from scrutiny by an independent regulator, but a federal joint review panel is drawing attention to what might be missed as a result.

In a letter to the B.C. Utilities Commission, Ottawa's environmental review panel has asked for a submission about what the commission's regulatory review would have looked like, had the province not declared the $8-billion project exempt from the BCUC's authority.

Jim Quail, a lawyer for the union representing B.C. Hydro workers, said Tuesday the response the BCUC must provide will underscore the gap between the two reviews.

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"What's missing in the joint review panel process is whether or not the development of the Site dam actually makes economic and logistical sense for the B.C. Hydro energy grid," he said in an interview. "That's the expertise of the BCUC."

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency began public hearings on the dam project in December and will wrap up those sessions on Jan. 23. The review has already generated tens of thousands of pages of documents, and the agency will complete its inquiries and start writing the report by Feb. 3. Its recommendations will be presented to federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq by late April. If she finds the project would cause significant adverse effects, she will take the matter to cabinet for a final decision.

Kristine Bienert, acting director of policy planning for the BCUC, said the regulator will comply with the agency's request. "It's not completely unusual for us to provide information, what we do is unique."

B.C. Hydro has proposed a third hydroelectric dam on the Peace River near Fort St. John to meet future energy demand. The provincial government decided to avoid a BCUC review, which would have probed whether the Crown corporation's budget projections are accurate, and whether the megaproject is required.

An earlier incarnation of Site C was reviewed by the BCUC in the early 1980s. After 18 months of public hearings, the utilities commission recommended it be deferred. "The commission is not satisfied that Hydro has demonstrated that a 1983 construction start-up date is justified … or that it is preferable to all other sources [of power]."

The federal review process gives Ottawa greater control over the development, but the B.C. government has made it clear it wants the project to go ahead, in part to help support the development of a liquefied natural gas industry. But organizations representing B.C. Hydro's ratepayers have expressed concern that the project will not be built on budget, and that it will drive up rates unnecessarily.

In a Dec. 20 letter to Erica Hamilton, commission secretary for the BCUC, the lawyer for the joint review panel asks for an outline of what topics the regulator would have expected to cover, and how long it would take. Lawyer Brian Wallace also asked for details about the resources the BCUC would have invested in its own hearings, and about its powers to compel witnesses to submit to cross-examination.

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Mr. Quail said he can't speculate on the agency's reasons, but suggested the panel may be responding to assertions that their process is inadequate and they may seek to cover some of the territory that the commission would have reviewed.

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