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Harper pledges $130-million for northern B.C. power line

Tim Boyle/2003 Getty Images

The B.C. government is promising a new power transmission line will deliver an economic jolt for the province's remote northwest corner after the federal government pledged a share of the construction funds.

"We're going to build the Northwest Transmission Line," said Blair Lekstrom, the province's minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Wednesday that the project will be eligible for up to $130-million in green infrastructure funds as part of "Canada's commitment to clean energy."

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But the project still faces significant hurdles: An environmental assessment process has not been completed, a share of private-sector financing has not been secured, and it appears that the project needs the approval of the B.C. Utilities Commission.

Buoyed by the cash commitment from Ottawa, Mr. Lekstrom brushed those details aside, saying the environmental assessment can be turned around in 180 days: "It would be my hope we could see shovels in the ground as early as next year."

The 335-kilometre line would extend B.C. Hydro service to sparsely populated communities along Highway 37 from Terrace, but mostly, the project is geared to stimulating economic activity along the corridor.

Proponents say the project would unlock investment in a string of potential new mines, while promoting clean energy by reducing reliance on diesel generators.

Environmentalists scoffed at the notion that the project is green. "This transmission line is about electrifying coal and metal mines more than it is about clean, green energy," said Eric Swanson, a campaigner for the environmental group the Dogwood Initiative.

"If everyone is unemployed, I don't think the air they breathe is going to matter much," Mr. Lekstrom retorted. "The key is finding a balance that works for everyone."

The B.C. Mining Association and other business interests praised the announcement.

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"This particular project is paramount to the province's development," said John Winter, president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Pierre Gratton, head of the B.C. Mining Association, said the transmission line could stimulate up to $15-billion worth of investment in the coming decade.

"The northwest is being held back by a lack of access to power," he said. "There are a dozen or so mining projects that, without access to power, are much more expensive to bring into operation. This makes them much more viable."

The line will cost an estimated $404-million to build.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen said he expects to land $90-million in private sector financing now that Ottawa has stepped up, and the project would not increase the government's deficit because the remaining costs will be paid for by a self-sustaining Crown corporation, BC Hydro.

"It is great news for all of us and we can move ahead with all due haste," he said. "This is going to open up a whole quarter of the province."

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John Horgan, the New Democratic Party critic for energy, isn't sure the financial plan stands up.

"There's no business plan, there's no private sector partner and there is no environmental approval," Mr. Horgan said.

The project has been to the altar before.

Two years ago, the province put the proposal on hold after private sector financing fell apart. At one point B.C. had a $158-million commitment from Teck Resources Ltd. and NovaGold Resources Inc.

The two companies want to build Galore Creek, which would be Canada's biggest copper mine, and the transmission line is a key component. However, the project is stalled as the companies wrestle with total development costs at more than $5-billion.

Red Chris, a copper and gold mine proposed by Imperial Metals Corp., also would require the power line. Red Chris still faces a legal challenge from environmental groups.

Brian Kynoch, president of Imperial, said the government's investment will help his company raise the money to build the project.

The two mines would emit several hundred thousands tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, which scientists link to global warming.

But Mr. Lekstrom said the power line would also open up potential small green hydro projects as well as eliminate the need for diesel power in small towns in the region.

About 3,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent would be eliminated in two towns, home to several hundred people.

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