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Construction of the Site C dam project’s south bank cofferdam is shown in September.

BC Hydro

In a rare public speech six years after leaving office, former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell has defended the controversial Site C dam project and questioned the current Liberal government's climate-change agenda.

Speaking at a clean energy conference in Vancouver, Mr. Campbell reminded the audience that Site C first got government approval in 2010 while he was still premier. Premier Christy Clark's government has subsequently forged ahead with the $9-billion project, but it has become highly controversial because of its impact on the environment, on First Nations and on B.C.'s debt load.

Speaking at the same conference Monday, former New Democratic premier Mike Harcourt called Site C "a disaster" and said the NDP should cancel the project if they win the provincial election next May.

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But Mr. Campbell, who served as Canadian high commissioner to Britain from 2011 to 2015 after leaving politics in 2010, said his support for Site C hasn't wavered.

"I announced Site C. I remain for Site C," he said, adding, however, that the project shouldn't be done in a way that excludes the continued development of private power in the province.

The clean-energy industry has been hit hard by the Site C project because it has reduced BC Hydro's demand for privately produced power.

The Site C proposal, which will flood more than 80 kilometres in the Peace River Valley near Fort St. John, is expected to generate enough energy to power 450,000 homes a year. Construction of the project began last year and it is scheduled for completion in 2024. The project was initially rejected by provincial governments in 1982 and 1989 before Mr. Campbell's government set it in motion.

Asked in a written question from the audience why his government had decided to go ahead with it, Mr. Campbell replied: "We felt there was going to be a demand for clean energy … and we thought it was important to get on with it … It wasn't terribly sophisticated [policy reasoning], but that's what we thought. And we thought we could do it in an environmentally sensitive way where First Nations [rights were respected]."

The project is widely opposed by First Nations leaders, who say it will destroy traditional hunting and fishing areas and that it will drown sacred sites, including graves.

"I understand it's generating all kinds of responses," Mr. Campbell said in acknowledging how controversial the project has become.

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In other comments, Mr. Campbell was mildly critical of the current Liberal government for softening the climate-change agenda he initiated by bringing in the first carbon tax in North America.

"I try not to get too political in any of these things, but I can tell you this … the revenue-neutral [carbon] tax that we brought in in 2008 was something that most of the globe looks at and says that is a really sensible economic and environmental strategy, and I agree with that," he said.

"I think it was working and it did work, and I think when you are in the front, it's a good idea to keep on pushing forward," added Mr. Campbell. "We're not at the finish line [fighting climate change], we've got a long way to go. But I think for British Columbians … that was the right policy because it worked and I think we should have carried that on for a longer period of time."

Ms. Clark froze the carbon tax after taking office in 2011 and she recently ignored calls from a government-appointed climate advisory team to increase the tax, which sits at $30 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions.

"We will consider raising the carbon tax as other provinces catch up," Ms. Clark said this summer in defending her decision not to raise the tax for fear an increase might hurt the provincial economy.

Mr. Campbell said putting a price on carbon, and making the tax revenue neutral, was a wise move by his government that balanced economic and environmental needs.

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"We've got to stop thinking the two 'E's' – the economy and the environment – are in conflict. They actually can work together … and that's what's so important about revenue neutrality," he said.

"The carbon tax that we brought in in British Columbia was about dealing with carbon. It wasn't about generating additional revenues … it was about putting a cost on carbon, plain and simple, and it was virtually exemption-free … so people knew they had to get on with it [by reducing carbon emissions] and they started to solve problems … and the environment was improved."

Mr. Campbell made his comments at Generate 2016, a conference organized by Clean Energy BC, an industry association that represents companies involved in producing power from wind, solar, hydro, biomass and geothermal projects.

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