In its decision to proceed with the contentious Site C hydroelectric dam, B.C.'s NDP government chose a path of political pragmatism over hell-bent ideology.
While the party's activist environmental wing will be upset, and possibly disillusioned enough to begin drifting toward the Green party, Premier John Horgan's decision to push ahead with the much-maligned project will be a lot less costly to his government in the long run.
While there were myriad reasons trotted out by the NDP on Monday for reluctantly moving ahead with the dam, the biggest one was not mentioned: electoral politics. And the calculus is pretty simple.
More than $4-billion has already been spent on the undertaking. If it was cancelled, that debt would automatically be moved on to the books of the government or the Crown authority in charge of energy, BC Hydro. In order to deal with that liability, electricity rates would have to be raised by at least 12 per cent for consumers across the province. That unpopular decision would be immediately blamed on the NDP – something a party in a precarious minority government situation can ill afford.
I doubt Mr. Horgan, who waited 16 long years to see the NDP return to office, wanted to be the person who in one fell swoop made a move that helped relegate it to the Opposition benches for another 16.
Beyond that, there were other considerations that gave the government some ammunition to use in its defence.
They included reports that the growing electrification of the province would mean energy demand vastly exceeded what Site C offered. In fact, to meet its commitments under the Paris climate accord, not to mention the switch industry is making to clean electricity, the province would need the equivalent of nine Site Cs – and possibly more – to meet day-to-day requirements by 2050, a Clean Energy conference was told recently. Environmentalists have long argued there wasn't the energy demand to justify the damage dam construction would cause to the Peace River area. Now, experts are suggesting just the opposite is true; Site C won't provide nearly enough.
That does not mean this decision is without risks.
The project is already a billion dollars over budget. There have been early construction setbacks that have added to the costs and we're only a quarter of the way through it. The nearly $11-billion current cost could be $12-billion or more before it's completed.
It could become a fiscal quagmire for future generations.
The decision will also be a setback for the NDP's efforts to reset relations with the province's Indigenous peoples. While not all First Nations oppose Site C, several groups do and have vowed to drag the matter out in the courts. There are doubtlessly some noisy confrontations on the horizon, precipitated by native groups feeling betrayed by the government.
The move will also test the NDP's governing relationship with the three-seat Green party. Leader Andrew Weaver was quick to denounce the decision, even going as far as suggesting the energy minister be subject to a recall petition in her riding.
That won't happen. Nor will the government fall as a result of Mr. Weaver withdrawing his party's governing support for the NDP. He needs to show that minority governments can work; it's in his party's interests. Helping defeat the NDP over Site C and sending people back to the polls would do just the opposite of that. And it would all but assure that the government's promised referendum on proportional representation scheduled to be held in 2018 – a plebiscite the Greens desperately want to see get passed – is defeated by voters.
Perhaps Mr. Horgan's biggest worry, however, is the cracks this announcement has created inside his own cabinet and caucus. It is no secret the Premier had to face down intense opposition inside his own ranks. At his news conference, he admitted as much and suggested he and his colleagues would "get past this."
Perhaps they will. But it will not be forgotten. And Mr. Horgan is going to have to govern knowing that the fissures that this go-ahead has created inside the walls of his government, always have the potential to get bigger and more serious.
Site C is a decision the ramifications of which will be felt for years to come.