On the verge of a court case that will put BC Hydro's financial argument for the Site C dam under scrutiny, several groups are calling for a construction delay until the province's Auditor-General has had time to review the controversial project.
The $9-billion dam on the Peace River was approved in 2014 and land clearing began this winter, but opposition to the project has continued to grow – with First Nations challenging it in court over treaty issues and a protest camp springing up in the construction zone in December.
The demand for a work halt comes with BC Hydro scheduled to go to court Monday seeking an injunction to have the protest camp removed. Documents filed in that case delve into financial issues surrounding the project, with BC Hydro arguing that a one-year delay will cost about $420-million.
Affidavits filed by expert witnesses for the protesters, however, claim a one-year delay will actually save taxpayers $267-million because the forecast power demands have fallen, and setting back the in-service date while deferring immediate construction costs would be beneficial.
One affidavit filed on behalf of the protesters by Marc Eliesen, who was president and CEO of BC Hydro in 1992-94, states that proceeding with Site C "without appropriate regulatory scrutiny is highly imprudent."
Mr. Eliesen states that construction should be delayed "until due diligence is performed on the cost of the project and need for the project established."
BC Hydro has always maintained that the long-term financial argument for the project is strong because of a growing power demand, but critics have challenged that, saying a financial assessment by a third party is needed.
In approving the Site C dam, the B.C. government decided not to refer if for review by the B.C. Utilities Commission, an agency that regulates electricity utilities and which could have provided an independent review.
Colleen Rose, a spokeswoman for B.C.'s Auditor-General, said Site C was identified in a performance plan last year as a project needing an audit by her office.
"It's on our radar," she said Wednesday, but no time frame for the audit, which could take a year, has been set.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said in a statement Wednesday that construction of the dam should be put on hold until the AG's probe is completed.
"This project must be paused immediately," said Mr. Phillip, who described Site C as "an obvious threat" to the treaty rights of First Nations.
National Chief Perry Bellegarde, of the Assembly of First Nations, added his support to the call for delayed construction, saying it cannot proceed "without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples impacted."
Warren Williams, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 15, said Site C will be bad for the provincial economy.
"The need for the dam has not been justified and less costly alternatives were not properly considered," said Mr. Williams, whose local represents more than 6,000 public-sector workers largely in the educational, administrative and health-care fields.
"We want and need the Auditor-General to review this. BC Hydro's own projections show that the power from this dam is not needed now or for many more years," he said.
Sierra Club BC also called for a delay.
A BC Hydro spokesman declined comment.
In an e-mail, Ministry of Energy and Mines spokesman David Haslam said, "Government and BC Hydro are committed to moving forward with the Site C project," and the AG's office would be provided with due diligence information.
"BC Hydro's load forecasting methodology has been the subject of independent review in a number of BCUC regulatory proceedings, and the BCUC has accepted BC Hydro's load forecasting methodology," he wrote. "It is worth noting that the Site C cost estimate has been independently reviewed by KPMG and an independent panel of contractors with decades of experience in the management and construction of major projects."
Site C would be BC Hydro's third dam on the Peace River in northeast B.C. It will provide enough electricity to power about 450,000 homes per year.
In proposing the project, BC Hydro said it was needed to meet future energy demands and described it as a cost-effective project, because despite the significant up-front capital cost, it would have low operating costs over its projected 100-year lifespan.
Andrew Weaver, leader of the B.C. Green Party, added his voice to the call for a delay in Site C construction, saying in the legislature Thursday the project shouldn't proceed until the auditor-general's office has had time to investigate.
"Site C should have been subject to the B.C. Utilities Commission, but the government felt it would slow down their political agenda too much," said Mr. Weaver. "It is risky and foolish. British Columbians are going to be paying for this project for decades."