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No Magic Solution: Horgan on Approving Site C

‘It’s not a project we would have started, but we’re three years in.’

Andrew MacLeod 11 Dec

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

Premier John Horgan said that the government he leads has decided with “a heavy heart” to continue building the Site C dam on the Peace River.

“I want to stress this is not a project that we favoured, it’s not a project we would have started, but we’re three years in,” Horgan said. “I was not prepared to foreclose on the future generations by making a decision today that would make me feel good.”

Horgan said the cabinet made the decision Dec. 6. The main criteria were the impact on ratepayers and the effect on the finances of BC Hydro and the government. Other considerations included the interests of First Nations, greenhouse gas emissions and the effect on agriculture and food security.

Depending whether the $4 billion to cancel the project was absorbed by ratepayers, BC Hydro or the government, cancelling the project would have meant a 12 per cent rate hike in 2020 or reducing the government’s capacity to complete other capital projects such as schools or hospitals.

Completing Site C will lead to 1.1 per cent increases to hydro rates in 2025 and 2026, though the increase would be about six per cent if it was applied all at once.

“I know many of us wish the circumstances were different, but I and my colleagues have to accept the situation as we find it, not as we wish it would be,” Horgan said.

He blamed the situation on the previous government, which approved Site C without having it reviewed by the B.C. Utilities Commission. “They got to the point of no return. That was their whole point. It wasn’t about public policy, it wasn’t about energy policy, it wasn’t about the best interests of British Columbians.”

Horgan, who was flanked by Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Minister Michelle Mungall and Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman, acknowledged many people will disagree with the decision to continue, and mentioned that both his wife and his brother thought the project should be cancelled.

Addressing his remarks to opponents of the project, he said, “I respect the strength of your convictions and your concerns about the future of BC Hydro and British Columbia. I share your conviction to protect B.C.’s farmland and reduce the impact of energy developments now and into the future.”

As for First Nations’ concerns, he said, “We agree decisions like this must, must be done in tandem and in concert with Indigenous peoples, but those challenges have passed. The previous government made decisions to proceed leaving some of those questions unanswered.”

Horgan also announced that BC Hydro’s standing offer program would be reopened to buy electricity produced independently, that a new food security fund is being launched to make farming more viable in the province and that there would be increased training opportunities working on Site C.

The government is also increasing oversight of the project, he said.

“Today we’re announcing a way forward and it’s been a difficult journey,” Horgan said. “I don’t have a magic solution, but I have the best solution we can come up with in the time I have as premier to make sure we’re doing the least amount of damage to BC Hydro, to the people of British Columbia.”

The third of a series of dams on the Peace River, Site C would flood an 83-kilometre-long stretch of the river to generate enough electricity to power 450,000 homes. Approved in 2014, construction on the controversial project began in 2015 and former premier Christy Clark had said she hoped to move it beyond the point of no return before this year’s election.

After forming government in July, the NDP asked the BCUC to report on the consequences of stopping, suspending or finishing the project. In November, the 299-page British Columbia Utilities Commission Inquiry Respecting Site C Final Report to the Government of British Columbia found the project is already over budget by at least $1.6 billion and is likely behind schedule. The BCUC projected a final cost of at least $10 billion.

The BC Liberals welcomed the decision, but criticized the NDP for creating uncertainty. “Today’s announcement by the NDP is the right decision,” said Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier. “It’s unfortunate we had to wait six months for an obvious decision.”

Tracy Redies, the MLA for Surrey-White Rock and a former BC Hydro board member, said, “This project was always about doing what’s in the best interests of British Columbians.”

In a prepared statement, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver criticized the decision to continue construction. “Our caucus is extremely disheartened by this decision. It is fiscally reckless to continue with Site C and my colleagues and I did everything we could to make this clear to the government.”

The NDP needs the support of the Green Party to win votes in the legislature and Weaver has said he and the other two Green MLAs won’t defeat the government because of Site C. In 2008, when building Site C was in the planning stages, Weaver supported the project. He has said he changed his mind due to snowballing costs and unresolved First Nations opposition to the project.

“Today’s announcement reflects a sad reality for B.C., and British Columbians deserve better,” he said. “They deserve a vision grounded in bold ideas that will enable our province to be a leader in the 21st century economy, not more empty campaign promises and political calculation.”

Following the NDP’s announcement, the West Moberly First Nations and Prophet River First Nation announced they intend to seek a court injunction to halt construction while they start a civil action for treaty infringement.

West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson said in a prepared statement that the BCUC’s report is clear the power from Site C is not needed. “With the BCUC’s report in hand, we’re confident that the court will grant our injunction. Usually, courts are reluctant to hold up a project because of economic impacts. But with the BCUC’s report in hand, the court can actually save British Columbia billions of dollars, and protect our constitutional rights at the same time.”

On Twitter, former elected chief of the Hupacasath First Nation Judith Sayers wrote that the premier is not serious about the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. UNDRIP requires free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples to development on their territories.

“Any hopes I had for a different, progressive BCNDP government are dashed,” Sayers wrote. “This is the same old capitalistic kind of government that cares more about money and jobs than reconciliation with First Nations and the environment.”  [Tyee]

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