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River Power? Make BC's Renewables Policy Credible

Needed: transparent, localized planning for sustainable power. Latest in enviro law reforms series.

By Josh Paterson 18 Apr 2013 |

Josh Paterson is executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association and an ELC associate. At the time this was written he was staff counsel with West Coast Environmental Law.

[Editor's note: This Tyee special series, in cooperation with the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, reveals what B.C.'s leading experts in environmental law say most needs to be fixed, and their specific suggestions for change. To read all their recommendations, download the free electronic publication "Maintaining Natural British Columbia for Our Children: Selected Law Reform Proposals." Today: the threats to nature from "run-of-river" hydro-electric developments.]

The future of electricity generation in B.C. has been highly controversial for the last several years.

The provincial government was initially enthusiastic about renewable generation such as run-of-river projects -- and about switching away from fuels that create greenhouse gases. However, it pursued its agenda in a way that did not result in public confidence or buy-in. Many lack confidence in provincial and federal environmental assessment and decision-making systems. For example, B.C. exempts many run-of-river projects from any environmental assessment at all. And the recent gutting of federal environmental assessment laws has reduced confidence even further.

The public has raised many crucial questions. Should facilities be privately or publicly owned? Do we need more power and for what purpose should additional power generation be built? (For export? For the liquefied natural gas industry? To move B.C. away from fossil-fuelled transportation?) Could particular regions sustain new electricity projects on top of existing activities without compromising important ecological and social values? Are there certain places so special that they should forever be off limits for renewable electricity development?

The B.C. government failed to create a process to help the public answer these questions. Its Clean Energy Act required the creation of an "Integrated Resource Plan," but it simply doesn't address the big-picture policy questions. Nor does it attempt to predict the environmental, social and cultural impacts of development in any particular area. The debates over new power generation were left to fester, resulting in reduced social license for renewable electricity projects.

Now things have changed. The provincial government has largely shifted away from a renewable agenda except for large-scale hydro construction. Instead, it is encouraging the use of natural gas to generate electricity. In turn, some of that electricity is being used to power natural gas production -- contributing to climate change and raising a range of other issues around drilling, fracking and water. This policy lurch makes it even more clear that B.C. needs a rational system for electricity planning that will consider environmental impacts in a credible way.

The Integrated Resource Plan needs to be supplemented with a process that will allow communities to have a real say in the future of their regions, and that will result in better environmental decisions and outcomes. In order to achieve this:

A system of regional energy assessment and planning needs to be created that is linked to provincial electricity planning:

This would include regional cumulative effects assessments and make decisions through the lens of whether a particular decision will make a genuine contribution to sustainability. Regional planning should undertake a comparative evaluation of alternatives -- including the option of permitting no renewable electricity projects in the region if that is appropriate. This planning must be administered credibly and impartially, and would likely best be done by a provincial agency created specifically for that purpose. First Nations would need to be involved in the design of this process, and have the right to be involved as decision makers on a government-to-government basis with the province.

Cumulative effects must be assessed and mitigated as part of the renewable electricity planning process:

Even when an individual development is "small" in scale, there are crucial concerns about the expanded road and power supply networks needed and the "domino-like" cumulative effects of multiple different projects in the same region -- seen in the context of other past, present and possible future development. In order to provide meaningful direction to decision makers, cumulative effects assessment must be conducted proactively on a regional level. It must focus on valued components of the ecosystem and human well-being. In addition, regional planning should be linked to any future project-specific environmental assessments.

Planning could be rolled out region by region, focusing initially on regions:

That are likely to see near- to medium-term development pressure for electricity generation or transmission;

Where cumulative effects concerns and opportunities are likely to be greatest; and

Where the initiation of immediate assessment work can provide timely guidance for regional preparations (e.g. infrastructure planning), community capacity development (e.g. job training, entrepreneurial development) and licensing/permitting.

Sustainability assessment should be central to the process:

Regional planning for renewable electricity, and environmental assessment generally, should be based on a "sustainability assessment" model, and this should be spelled out in legislation. Sustainability assessment is aimed not at reducing the negative impacts of a project, but at producing environmental decisions that deliver a fair distribution of multiple, mutually reinforcing and lasting benefits while avoiding significant adverse effects. The process must ask whether we need the development at all. If a project does not result in benefit on the ecological, social and economic fronts, it should not be pursued.

Regional planning must respect the role of First Nations as decision makers in their territories: New assessment, planning and decision-making mechanisms should be designed and implemented in a manner that respects the role of First Nations governments as decision makers in their territories.

Planning must involve robust public participation:

There should be a direct role for citizens and interested nongovernmental organizations in determining the purpose, scope and priorities of electricity planning. This must be done in a transparent and consistent way.

The province is advocating a huge expansion in electricity generation in B.C. Yet it is clear that B.C. needs to change the way it makes environmental decisions in the electricity sector and elsewhere. This might make people more comfortable with the idea of increasing the generation of renewable electricity in their areas -- if it is ecologically and culturally appropriate. And it will certainly lead to better environmental decisions based on a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impacts of new developments.

For more information, see:

Tim Thielmann. Testing the Waters: A Review of Environmental Regulation of Run of River Power Projects in British Columbia. Wilderness Committee and BC Creek Protection Society, with the Environmental Law Centre.

BC Sustainable Energy Association.  [Tyee]

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