Public hearings into the massive Site C project proposed by BC Hydro will begin next month, after a joint federal-provincial review panel announced Thursday that it is satisfied the Crown corporation has submitted all necessary information in its environmental-impact statement.
An opening session in Fort St. John on Dec. 9 will mark the beginning of a process that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency says will be completed by the end of January.
Under the strict new timelines set out for environmental review both federally and provincially, a decision is expected by mid-2014.
"The need for the project is there certainly in the long term, it's long-term planning. It, in fact, may be needed sooner, particularly from a capacity perspective," said Dave Conway, a spokesman for the Crown corporation.
He cited expectations for major growth in liquefied natural gas, mining, forestry and other light industrial and commercial development, as well as projections for one million in population growth in B.C. over the next 20 years.
"And then people are more plugged in. Look at all the electronic devices that people have on their person, in their homes. Now we're looking at potential load growth with electric vehicles as well," Mr. Conway said.
Hydro energy forecasts indicate customer demand for electricity is expected to increase by about 40 per cent over the next two decades.
If the corporation does receive approval, the construction period will be seven years, he said.
"So, you're not looking at having any electricity produced until 2022, 2023."
The public review will include four weeks of hearings in communities throughout the Peace River region including Doig River, Chetwynd and Hudson's Hope in December and January.
The $7.9-billion dam would produce enough electricity to power 450,000 homes per year for 100 years, but critics say that's not what it will be doing. It will be powering the provincial government's liquefied natural-gas industry, which even with Site C will be left wanting for the energy-intensive process to turn gas into liquid for transport overseas.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has said she believes LNG could be a trillion-dollar industry for the province by 2046.
The Site C project will leave about 5,000 hectares of the Peace River Valley under water, at least 3,800 of them agricultural land, creating an 83-kilometre, 9,300-hectare reservoir.
The Treaty 8 Tribal Association has said more than 100 heritage sites will be destroyed and up to 20 families forced out of their homes.
Joe Foy, a campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, said his group has been disappointed since the on-again, off-again project was announced in 2010.
Mr. Foy said environmental assessments are now under strict timelines, and the panels are not given the freedom to ensure the public and First Nations have time and money to present their information.
Mr. Foy said the Wilderness Committee will not be participating in the review, but does plan a campaign in the coming months to try to sway public opinion, which he believes can stop the project from going ahead.
"There's 100 kilometres of river valley – a huge amount of farmland – that would be flooded. I don't know if the people in the south have locked on that yet," he said.
"While that river is still running, we've got some fight in us."
Site C would be the third dam and hydroelectric generating station on the Peace River.
The W.A.C Bennett west of Hudson's Hope incorporates 10 generating units that have a combined maximum output of 2,790 megawatts. Twenty-three kilometres downstream from there, the Peace Canyon generating station has four units producing 694 megawatts.
For comparison, Site C would incorporate six 183-megawatt generating stations.
The panel is still taking applications from those who want to speak at the hearings, after which it will submit a report to the federal environment minister and the head of the B.C. environmental assessment office.