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Site C dam – yes and no

Saying yes


Beware of fake news.

That’s the message from BC Hydro chair Brad Bennett, who says there is plenty of fake news circulating on social media about the Crown corporation in general and the building of the Site C dam specifically.

“We do have to build Site C,” Bennett said during a stop in Prince George earlier this year. “I take issue with the fake news crowd, talking about Site C and whether it’s needed or not. The fact is it’s needed. We know it’s needed. Our forecasting shows that very, very clearly.”

BC Hydro CEO Brad Bennett
BC Hydro CEO Brad Bennett

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Brad the grandson of former B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett for whom the first dam on the Peace River is named. Without building Site C, Hydro will fall behind where it needs to be to provide power to British Columbians, says the younger Bennett.

“We expect, without Site C, we will be in a capacity deficit of eight per cent in our 10-year planning horizon and an energy deficit of two per cent within that 10-year period,” he said. “A lot of this is about getting in front of the eventuality, getting in front of the curve. Making sure we have the power when we need it.”

He said Site C will produce 35 per cent of the energy produced at W.A.C. Bennett dam with only five per cent of the reservoir.

“Site C creates, in essence, a widening of the river,” he said. “It’s not like what happened at Williston, creating the reservoir which is now one of B.C. largest lakes. It’s basically recycled water. It will have been through two generating stations by the time is gets to Site C.”

Bennett said Hydro has spent almost half, $4 billion, of the $8.5 billion budgeted. And, a year-and-a-half into the eight-year construction period, he says the project is on budget and on schedule.

As of February, there were 1,900 people working at Site C, 82 per cent of those are from B.C., said Bennett, 700 workers are from the Peace. Forty-five per cent of the contractor work force is from the Peace region and 200 workers are First Nations. A total of 275 businesses have contributed.

While the times have certainly changed since the 1960s, when BC Hydro was formed, the core role of the Crown corporation hasn’t.

“The reasons they went ahead and created Hydro and got on with all the projects in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s are the same as they are today,” said Bennett. “We’re at a different place in history but the reasons for continuing to develop this much needed infrastructure, the backbone of our province, is as critical today as it always was.”

In addition, it’s not all about Site C. BC Hydro has 79 dams at 41 sites with 31 generating stations and more than 300 substations in the province.

“Our mission is to create reliable, safe, and affordable electricity for our customers,” he said.

BC Hydro is one of the largest companies in the province. In its fiscal year 2016 Hydro had revenues of $5.7 billion, with capital expenditures of $2.3 billion, and the end of last fiscal had assets of roughly $30 billion.

In the last five years, it has completed 560 capital projects with an aggregate value of $6.5 billion.

“We’re not just starting to build, we’ve been at this for a while,” said Bennett. “Don’t believe what you might hear from fake news. Hydro is a company that knows that it’s doing when it comes to building these projects, managing these projects, and getting them build on budget, on time. We find ourselves back in a period of big build, just like the company was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

It was in the 1950s that the W.A.C. Bennett government started studying major rivers in the province with the goal of providing hydroelectric power. In 1962 the government created BC Hydro by taking over BC Electric and amalgamating it with the B.C. Power Commission. At the same time, developed the Columbia River Treaty, signed in 1964.

The government was intent on opening up the north. It took over the BC Electric Railway which eventually became BCRail.

It also developed the Two Rivers Policy, with the idea of developing the Peace River and the Columbia River.

“We’re in an enviable position with all of our assets,” said Bennett. “We’ve got a legacy of solid infrastructure, but the fact is our assets are aging. So many of our assets are approaching half a century old. They require an awful lot of maintenance. We need to get on with building our capacity.”

Energy demand expected to increase by 40 per cent over the next 20 years, he said and the province’s population is expected to increase by two million people over the next 25 years. That means more demand for power.

Some say Hydro should look to alternative sources of power, such as wind, and solar, and run of the river to build that capacity. Bennett says the corporation has with independent power producers providing 25 per cent of its total energy.

“We can’t do more than that right now,” said Bennett. “We need to bring balance back into the system because just creating more intermittent power production on its own, doesn’t provide the reliability in the system we need. We need to have firm power. We need to have that firm capacity. That’s why hydroelectric facilities are so important so crucial. They provide power when we need it, on demand, all the time.

“Reservoirs are like giant batteries. They are, literally, our battery storage. We can turn our generators on, or shut them and we can manage our peak demand.”

So Hydro will work on expanding its capacity, with Site C, and other projects around the province.

Over the next 10 years capital plan spending will be more than $2 billion a year, which has a GDP impact of $13 billion.

“We are expecting to create around 100,000 person/years of employment,” said Bennett. “These aren’t minimum wage jobs. These are solid, middle class, family supporting jobs.”

Hydro, however, is a strange business. While the corporation is looking at expanding its capacity to serve more customers, it also spends billions urging British Columbians not to use its product as much.

“It’s not just about building,” said Bennett. “Let’s not forget the important side of what BC Hydro has done since the early 2000s, that’s invest in the demand side management, which is PowerSmart initiatives. That’s where we put an interesting spin on planning our business model. We actually invest hundreds of millions of dollars to convince you not to buy our product.”

The reason Hydro does that, he said, was so that it can delay the inevitable … building more capacity.

“At times demand side management isn’t enough and just have to get on with it and build.”

Saying no

Citizens’ groups, human rights organizations and environmental movements are asking British Columbia Members of Parliament to take a message to Ottawa.

“British Columbia’s Site C dam is one of the largest mega-projects of our generation,” said Andrea Morison, executive director of Peace Valley Environment Association, in a press release. “Our political leaders cannot continue to ignore the devastating impact it will have on our waters and on the rights of Indigenous peoples.”

More than 120,000 people have signed petitions, postcards and letters calling for an immediate halt to construction. Petitions were presented to B.C. MPs last week as they prepared to return to the House of Commons after a Parliamentary break.

Organizers include Amnesty International Canada, LeadNow, Sierra Club BC, the Peace Valley Environment Association, KAIROS, Keepers of the Water, Peace Valley Landowners Association, Alliance4Democracy and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

They call on parliamentarians of all parties to press for clear answers on why this project is proceeding, despite harming the natural environment, farmlands, and the rights of Indigenous peoples. Last week, a detailed study published by the University of British Columbia Program on Water Governance concluded that proceeding with Site C would be “uneconomic.”

The study points to lower future electricity demand than stated by BC Hydro during the project's review process, higher project costs than previously estimated, and falling cost of alternative sources of energy.

“Even before Site C was approved, the environmental assessment process raised serious doubts about the claimed economic benefits that supposedly justified the terrible harm that would be done by flooding the Peace Valley," said Candace Batycki of Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “Now that this report from UBC has declared the project uneconomic, it’s clearly time for both levels of government to give this project some sober second thought.”

The federal and provincial governments acknowledge they approved the dam without consideration of whether doing so was consistent with their legal obligations under Treaty 8, which protects the right of the Cree and Dane-Zaa to use their traditional lands.

Despite a series of judicial reviews of the approval of Site C, Canadian courts have yet to render a verdict on this fundamental question.

“Site C is a disaster in the making,” said Brittany Smith, campaigner at LeadNow. “Canadians deserve to know why our governments have continued to back such a disastrous and costly project in the face of serious, unresolved legal challenges from First Nations.”

The dam may also threaten water flows in the Peace-Athabasca Delta, part of Wood Buffalo National Park. A recent UNESCO report strongly criticizes Canada for failing to protect the park, the country’s largest World Heritage Site. Wood Buffalo risks being added to the list of World Heritage in Danger unless the Canadian government acts to address these threats, which endanger the ability of the Mikisew Cree to practice their way of life.

“The UNESCO report shows the Site C dam should have never been approved in the first place. Now, it is damaging the relationship between First Nations and Canadian society,” said Galen Armstrong, Peace Valley campaigner for Sierra Club B.C. “It is time for the federal government to stop abdicating its responsibility and immediately suspend its approval of Site C.”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs says: “The future of Site C has become a hot topic in the current provincial election. Whoever forms the next provincial government after May 9, it is going to be very hard for them to continue ignoring the impact of this unnecessary mega-project. The missing piece is for the federal government to break its silence on this crucial issue.”

Jennifer Henry, executive director of KAIROS, says: “Our organizations are grateful to the Members of Parliament who have already spoken out on Site C. We hope that MPs of all parties will agree that a project that is of such concern to so many Canadians deserves closer scrutiny.”

This week at a United Nations meeting on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, the federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett once again set out her government’s promise to fully uphold the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This includes the right of Indigenous peoples to say no to unwanted development on their lands.

Craig Benjamin, who is attending the UN meeting on behalf of Amnesty International says: “The federal government has never explained how it can reconcile its claims to champion the rights of Indigenous peoples on the world stage while turning its back on those same rights in the Peace Valley."

Peace River Valley. Photo by Donald Huffman/Peace Valley Environmental Association
Peace River Valley. Photo by Donald Huffman/Peace Valley Environmental Association

What the politicians say

Green Party candidate Hilary Crowley, New Democrat Bobby Deepak, and Liberal Mike Morris debate Site C during an all-candidates forum Tuesday. Bill Phillips photo
Green Party candidate Hilary Crowley, New Democrat Bobby Deepak, and Liberal Mike Morris debate Site C during an all-candidates forum Tuesday. Bill Phillips photo


Three different candidates, three different positions on the Site C dam.

On the right, Liberal Mike Morris supports the $9 billion mega-project, in the middle New Democrat Bobby Deepak isn’t necessarily opposed but wants an independent review, and on the left Green candidate Hilary Crowley wants it scrapped.

It all made for a lively debate between the three at the all-candidates forum at UNBC Tuesday.

“I’m a supporter of Site C, much to the chagrin of both my colleagues,” said Morris. “People talk about solar, people talk about wind power, but when the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining, we need power from someplace. Williston Lake is that big battery that we need for back up.”

Williston Lake will provide decades of power for the province, he said.

“Maybe 50 years from now we’ll be taking our power from the sun, or from other source,” he said. “But in the interim, for the foreseeable for the next several decades we’re going to be very reliant on Site C and that clean hydro power.”

Crowley pointed the irony that Hudson Hope, the community closest to the Site C dam on the Peace River, is converting all its municipal buildings to solar energy.

“I have to disagree with what you’re saying,” said Crowley. “Site C is not necessary, we have enough electricity.”

Deepak pointed out that the Liberal government did not go through the usual process of having the B.C. Utilities Commission review the project before giving it the green light, thus making it a political decision to build the dam.

“She made it a political decision because she couldn’t point to any jobs here in the North,” he said. “LNG didn’t happen. The only job they created was for Gordon Wilson (appointed by the Liberal government as B.C.’s LNG advocate).”

He said argument that Site C is needed to supply B.C.’s energy demand is the Liberals’ message.

“We don’t know because the B.C. Utilities Commission didn’t get the opportunity to assess what energy needs that we have and what we need for the future,” Deepak said, adding a New Democratic government would ask the utilities commission to conduct such an assessment.

“So in the interim are you going to issue 2,100 pink slips?” asked Morris, referring to the people already working at the site.

“No we’re not,” said Deepak. “I don’t know why you keep on saying that. What we’re going to do is put the question to the B.C. Utilities Commission where it should have been in the first place.”

Morris said there is no project in British Columbia that has been studied more than the Site C dam.

Crowley said she knows Chief Robert Wilson of the West Moberly Band and said he was almost in tears when the decision to go ahead with Site C was made.

British Columbians go to the polls May 9.

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