Building dams in B.C. used to be a relatively straight-forward procedure. Governments did not need to worry about constitutional challenges to their authority. Or spend years trying to broker deals that would make those affected by the project happy.
It was an era that some recall fondly as the good old days.
The world of mega-project-building in the province has changed, of course. And in approving the $8.8-billion Site C hydro-electric project, the B.C. government is about to find out exactly how much. The final outcome could be precedent-setting and force a complete re-thinking of the future of large-scale projects.
This is all to say that while the dam has been given a green-light by government, it is still a long way from being built. Legal challenges from First Nations communities and other stakeholder groups have already commenced. It is not inconceivable this dispute could end up in the Supreme Court of Canada and produce a legal decision that gives aboriginal groups even more land-use powers than they already have. The legal costs will be astronomical.
The government's case for pressing ahead is not without its problems. There are legitimate questions about the present need for the electricity that would be generated. Also, the government refused to allow the B.C. Utilities Commission to vet the project, possibly out of concern the scrutiny might reveal disturbing information about the true costs.
In 2004, the dam was budgeted at $3.2-billion. Two years later, it was double that. In 2011, the number was $7.9-billion. Does anyone honestly believe that by the time it is due to be opened in 2024, it will have set the treasury back only $8.8-billion? Not a chance. The final total could easily be north of $12-billion and possibly far north. That does not mean there still is not an economic case to be made for the dam, just that the cost estimate has not been tested by an independent authority. That is an issue.
And then, of course, there is the environmental damage the dam would create and the First Nations land it would destroy.
It would flood more than 5,500 hectares of valley floor. It would have significant adverse effects on fishing and hunting opportunities for aboriginal groups in the area. Their traditional way of life would be no more.
But the government has to view these matters in a broader context. It has to concern itself with the energy needs of an entire province. The dam would be a source of clean hydro-electricity for a century. It would provide jobs for 10,000 people over the next decade. The province is going to need more power in the coming years, and the dam is a way of producing it while generating the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of the province's economy has been built on dependable, low-cost power that is the envy of many other jurisdictions in the country. There is little question Site C would give companies access to the kind of cheap electricity that makes their projects economically viable.
In its final analysis, the provincial government has concluded that this dam is in the public interest. It will likely be up to a court to determine if that public interest supersedes the rights of those First Nations whose lives it would change forever. As we know, the legal landscape has shifted radically in recent years, particularly as it pertains to the impact that resource development projects have on aboriginal communities.
If the provincial government loses on Site C, it will be a ground-breaking setback to the customary powers the Crown has enjoyed. It would undoubtedly signal an end to the era of the mega-project and force the government to imagine a world with completely new rules.