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They're Killing the Peace River Valley Now

The $9 billion flaying, then drowning of a fertile zone has begun. We still don't know why.

Andrew Nikiforuk 17 Dec

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here. This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders. Please consider joining.

Last month the B.C government commenced the destruction of the fertile Peace River Valley, awarding a civil works contract worth $1.5 billion as construction crews methodically denuded the landscape of trees.

Taxpayers will be on the hook for at least $7.5 billion more by the time the devastation is done. The question looming larger than ever is whether the Peace River Valley must be sacrificed at all.

A range of rising voices insist that every argument made by the government for rushing to build a new mega-dam on the Peace River fails to hold water.

The government-dubbed "Site C Clean Energy Project" will flood scores of kilometres of valley river bottom (much of it valuable Class 1 agricultural land) and eventually generate enough power, says the province, to light up the equivalent of 450,000 homes.

According to one press release, the dam "will provide British Columbia with the most affordable, reliable clean power for over 100 years." Jessica McDonald, president and CEO of BC Hydro, explained that "Site C is essential to keeping the lights on while maintaining low rates for our customers."

Bill Bennett, minister of energy and mines added that, "It's clear that to keep rates low, we must choose the option of building Site C."

But critics, ecologists, farmers, First Nations, economists and even a joint provincial and federal panel of experts challenge every single government claim about the project. They argue that there is no real need for the project given depressed prices and turmoil in mining, fracking and liquefied natural gas markets that are supposedly hungry for the power Site C would provide.

Critics also say the high-risk dam, which could eventually cost $13 billion, won't lower rates for citizens but raise them.

They also explain that hydroelectric dams are not climate friendly or "clean" by any scientific measure.

"It is totally irrational and the project doesn't make any economic sense," says former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen.

Both the government and BC Hydro also overlooked greener alternatives such as geothermal.

And, say defenders of the Peace River Valley, the land scheduled to be flooded could still provide vegetables for nearly a million people and serve as one of the province's best agricultural defences against climate change and drought.

Bypassing the public's watchdog

Given the huge cost to taxpayers and so powerful arguments against it, such a project deserves to be adjudicated by an impartial body with the public interest as its mission. That would be the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC).

The specific public mandate of the BCUC is "to ensure that ratepayers receive safe, reliable, and non-discriminatory energy services at fair rates from the utilities it regulates." The only time the BCUC vetted the Site C project was back in 1983, and it rejected it.

This time around, the B.C. government excluded the project for any such due diligence, explaining "only duly elected officials have a right to make" such monumental decisions and not regulatory bodies specifically designed to provide checks and balances on political decision-making.

Economist Marvin Shaffer told The Tyee that "In my view, the government didn't want the BCUC to review the merits and in particular the timing of Site C because it could well have been rejected by the Commission."

"Virtually every ratepayer group including large power users and the wide range of general (commercial) users as well as the Public Interest Advocacy Centre would argue against building Site C at this time," added Shaffer, a professor at Simon Fraser's School of Public Policy.

Yet BC Hydro has argued that province will need additional power by 2024 and that the dam, long an obsession of the dam building agency, was the only alternative.

Panel warns of ratepayer hit

But even a 2014 joint federal and provincial environmental assessment panel couldn't find any real need for the project. Their 473-page study dramatically concluded that the BC Hydro had "not fully demonstrated the need for the project on the timetable set forth… For a number of reasons set out in the text, the Panel cannot conclude that the power of Site C is needed on the schedule presented."

The panel pointed out that in most places around the world, energy intensive liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals usually provide their own energy needs by burning natural gas. In addition the dam wouldn't be generating power till 2024 or several years after most proposed terminals were to be built.

As a result the panel recommended that the BC Utilities Commission conduct a thorough review of the project as well as future provincial electrical needs and societal costs if the government decided to proceed with Site C.

The panel also made many other key points. For example, it concluded that a number of energy alternatives such as geothermal were "competitive with Site C on a standard financial analysis" but found the province hadn't carefully explored the option.

The panel also noted that "a failure to pursue research over the last 30 years into B.C.'s geothermal resources has left BC Hydro without information about a resource that BC Hydro thinks may offer up to 700 megawatts of firm, economic power with low environmental costs."

The panel added that the province's Clean Energy Act gave the province and BC Hydro the mandate to investigate these matters.

The federal assessment also questioned the high cost of the project and the risks for ratepayers: "BC Hydro projects losing $800 million [from the dam] in the first four years of operation. These losses would come home to B.C. ratepayers in one way or another."

Harry Swain, the chair of the panel that reviewed the Site C hydro dam for the provincial and federal governments and a former federal deputy minister for Industry Canada, told DeSmog Blog earlier this year that a prudent government would have deferred the project for several years until questions about need have been fully investigated. "Building electricity facilities in advance of need only costs money."

Conservation, other options ignored

Marc Eliesen, one of the nation's top hydro executives with experience in several provinces, agrees with Swain's assessment and adds that provincial hydro bills will have to go up in the future to pay a project for which there is no proven need or reliable market.

Even if the province did need additional power by 2024 it could easily achieve more with aggressive conservation policies, or by adding additional capacity to the Burnaby gas-fired generating station. It could also tap into 1,000 MW from the United States available under guarantees made in the Columbia River Treaty.

"Once Site C starts operating, ratepayers will pay," said Eliesen. "They will see double digit rate increases. Will the government of the day that made the decision be around to take full responsibility and assume the full political consequences? No, they won't."

Even the province's major industries, which consume 40 per cent of the power generated by BC Hydro's hydro network, have tough questions about the controversial dam and consider it uneconomic.

According to the Association of Major Power Customers of BC, BC Hydro currently maintains sufficient generation to serve two potential LNG customers: the Douglas Channel and Kitimat LNG projects. Only a third LNG project, presumably Shell or Petronas project, would require the generation capacity of Site C dam.

Moreover, building a $9-billion dam for LNG projects and related fracking operations would be exceedingly wasteful and inefficient.

"The only timely and economic power supply option [for LNG] that can match load growth is local gas-fired generation. This also avoids the cost of building major transmission," said Richard Stout, the executive director of the AMPC in a 2013 presentation.

Claims that the dam will provide "clean energy" also confound the extensive and growing science on "the fizziness" of dams.

David Schindler, one of the world's top water ecologists, told The Tyee that dams are anything but climate friendly. 

"There are fossil fuels used in construction, to make and transport steel and concrete, as well as site preparation. Also, vegetation in flooded areas decays and releases both CO2 and methane, which is 80 time more potent as a GHG long term than CO2."

Methane releases from dams can be significant over the life of the project and in some cases even emit more climate warming gases than coal-fired generation.

But Schindler adds that there are several other problems including high mercury releases due to decay of flooded vegetation, displaced indigenous people or erosion of their resources, long transmission corridors that rip up pristine habitats, destruction of fish passages and siltation of spawning habitat. "Altogether, I rate hydro as below coal in environmental and social impacts."

Court challenges loom

Schindler added that he thought, "BC Hydro has long tentacles into government," and that geothermal would have been a much saner option.

"But I think profits from selling the excess to the USA are the real motives. As usual, the proponents are trying to get the dam built as much as possible before the courts have a look."

The dam would flood sacred First Nations sites and graves, and submerge land natives and farmers have depended on for their survival. To date, several Treaty 8 Nations and farmers have launched six different court challenges to the project on the grounds that the government has violated treaty rights and ignored federal recommendations to review the need and economics of the project.

Given the government failure to review costs, treaty rights and alternatives for a project with no demonstrable need, Marc Eliesen has concluded that the motivation for the dam is purely ideological.

"The only answer that makes any sense is that they can say to the public, 'We're building a project.'"  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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