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Excavation for the Site C dam project continued on the north bank of the Moberly River in September.BC Hydro

B.C. Premier John Horgan says his priority in deciding the future of the Site C dam is protecting BC Hydro's customers from rate shock as a result of the $9-billion megaproject.

The findings of an independent review of the Site C dam project will be delivered on Wednesday, laying out the cost of stopping, shelving or continuing to build the hydroelectric dam on the Peace River in northeastern British Columbia.

Meanwhile, construction continues on the project, which the former BC Liberal government sought to "get past the point of no return" before the provincial election in May ended its grip on power.

Mr. Horgan told reporters Tuesday that a final decision won't be rushed – additional consultation with Indigenous communities in the Peace River region will be carried out before his cabinet will decide what to do with the project.

However, the Premier said his primary concern is "the economic impact of the decision the previous government made. … I'm committed to protecting ratepayers from rate shock."

BC Hydro states that the completion of Site C will not trigger rate increases beyond regular inflation levels. However, the British Columbia Utilities Commission, in its interim report in September, cast doubt on that claim: "Of particular concern to the panel is the appropriateness of BC Hydro's assumption that there will be no real rate increases [in the decade after the dam is complete] since any rate increases introduced in this period could result in demand being lower than the current load forecast."

The decision on Site C will be a defining one for the Horgan government, and the divisions over the project within the governing New Democratic Party will be evident when party members gather in Victoria on the weekend for a postelection convention.

Union leader Tom Sigurdson, head of the BC Building Trades, said he'd prefer to avoid a public debate on the convention floor, but he expects he'll spend the weekend seeking to win over fellow New Democrats who oppose the project.

"There will be number of conversations between building trades and some of the people who are very much opposed to the project. Is that going to be on the floor? I don't know that would be beneficial," he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Mr. Sigurdson said the project needs to be reshaped so that the remaining contracts are tendered under a new labour agreement that would ensure employment for British Columbians, and that 25 per cent of the jobs are reserved for apprentices to ensure a skilled work force in the future.

Mr. Sigurdson conceded it will be a tough sell for many New Democrats – and an almost-impossible one if construction wasn't already well under way. "If this were a startup project, that would be a different conversation, I don't think I could win that one," he said. "But this already has lots of financial commitment."

The former Liberal government approved construction of the project without a review by the independent utilities regulator, and the NDP made an election campaign promise to order that evaluation, even though almost $2-billion worth of construction is already complete.

The BCUC's interim report on Site C identified key information gaps and cast doubt on many of the core assumptions that BC Hydro made to justify the project.

In response, BC Hydro disclosed that the project is facing challenges – already, the dam will cost an extra $610-million to complete because it will not meet the construction deadline to divert the Peace River in 2019, raising additional concerns that the project will not be completed on budget.

Former NDP premier Mike Harcourt is one of the high-profile New Democrats urging Mr. Horgan to kill the project, saying continuing with construction will be a "clear, unmitigated disaster."

Mr. Harcourt acknowledged the NDP has long had challenges managing its internal divisions between its environmentally-minded membership and the "hard-hat guys" currently represented by Mr. Sigurdson and other labour leaders. However, the former premier has outlined a plan to Mr. Horgan that he says offers a way out.

"The real issue is alternative hard-hat jobs," Mr. Harcourt said. He is proposing that the government develop a jobs plan that will provide employment around the province – with investments in infrastructure and silviculture, for example, that will provide sustainable development.

Mr. Horgan said he expects vigorous debate at the convention centred on the Site C dam.

"There are a range of contentious issues that will be brought for discussion, not unlike the discussions that people are having at their kitchen tables right across B.C.," he told reporters. "We are trying to grapple with a transforming economy, a carbon-constrained economy [that will] change the way we do business. And I want to lead a government that is enabling that change in a positive way."

British Columbia’s Premier and cabinet are meeting with Indigenous leaders at a First Nations Summit ahead of the new legislative session. John Horgan said Wednesday that reconciliation discussions must be followed by actions.

The Canadian Press

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