Some dam news from out west

Michael Johansen
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Does this sound familiar to anyone?

An almost $8-billion hydroelectric project is being pushed through by a hell-bent-for-leather proponent that has yet to prove it will ever be needed, even though the project’s 83-kilometre-long reservoir will unavoidably destroy irreplaceable wildlife habitat and inundate the traditional lands of several aboriginal groups, some of which claim they are being ignored by the proponent — a project, additionally, that has been placed beyond the independent oversight of the provincial utilities board that would normally protect the interests of ordinary ratepayers?

Nalcor’s Muskrat Falls project with a few typographical errors, you guess? It’s not. This is a description of British Columbia’s proposed Site C Clean Energy Project (which BC Hydro doesn’t have the honesty to call a dam) that is intended to be the third megaproject on the province’s northeastern Peace River. BC Hydro says it will take about eight years and $7.9-billion (an amount which, like Nalcor’s estimate, fails to include the eventual $4- to $5-billion decommissioning expenses) to construct a facility designed to generate 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity each year for 100 years — enough, the proponent claims, to supply power to 450,000 homes, although whether that’s how it will be used is still unclear, since it may go to the fracking industry instead. Limited environmental hearings on the project (limited by new federal legislation) are set to begin Dec. 9 and end a few weeks later in January — a process the project’s many opponents have little faith in, especially as the scheduled presenters have already been heavily stacked in favour of the proponent (another result of the federal government’s restriction of environmental protection).

Site C actually shares numerous similarities with the Muskrat Falls destruction project, in addition to its cost and size. Like the Lower Churchill, planning began for Site C in the 1970s and it was started and cancelled twice, having shown itself to be unfeasible on many levels. Also, the British Columbia government deprived it of the oversight of the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC) largely because the commission examined it in the 1980s and found it deficient.

“The commission is not satisfied that Hydro has demonstrated that a 1983 construction start-up date is justified,” the commission wrote at the time, “or that it is preferable to all other sources.”

Second-guess the government

Given that history, B.C.’s current energy minister did not want to give the commission another chance to second-guess the government — on Site C or any other proposal.

“That would have exposed those projects to the intervenor process we have at the BCUC — frankly a group of unelected bureaucrats and lawyers would have decided the future of energy policy in British Columbia,” Bill Bennett explained, oddly dismissive of an organization set up to protect citizens.

 Also like Nalcor, BC Hydro managed to fudge its submissions to the joint environmental review panel, not only avoiding an examination of many cumulative effects, but also making blatant errors and omissions concerning measures to mitigate the harm Site C will do to many wildlife species. For example, BC Hydro did not address the fact that the reservoir will cut northern B.C.’s endangered grizzly bear habitat in half and it also proposed to relocate a species of bird away from the to-be-flooded farmland it likes to some wetlands it doesn’t like — which, simply put, are both recipes for extinction.

Another big similarity (as mentioned earlier) is that BC Hydro has utterly failed to prove that any of the electricity generated will ever be needed. BC Hydro itself has indicated that most of the province’s forecasted increase in demand can be eliminated with conservation efforts, which (to be fair to BC Hydro) is not something Nalcor has ever seriously considered because such efforts would probably wipe out any need for new dams in Labrador.

A final comparison (although more exist): like Nalcor, BC Hydro says the province’s ratepayers can easily afford Site C’s humungous cost because nobody today will have to pay for it. The massive debt will all be dumped onto future B.C. generations who, like the future citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador, will no doubt be quite happy to pay for a pointlessly destructive electricity megaproject for many decades to come.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in North West River, Labrador

Organizations: BC Hydro, BCUC, B.C. Utilities Commission

Geographic location: British Columbia, Northeastern Peace River, Northern B.C. Newfoundland and Labrador North West River

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