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Opinion

Breaking Bad: The Pathology of Site C

John Horgan’s NDP government ignored basic truths and now commits BC to greater environmental disaster.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 12 Dec 2017 | TheTyee.ca

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.

The astoundingly stupid approval of Site C, an over-budget mega-project with no demonstrable need and plenty of cheaper alternatives, marks a black day for B.C.’s NDP government.

The party that promised to deliver fiscal prudence and accountability instead bowed to special interests and insider views.

New Democrats swore to observe First Nation rights but now have trod on them.

They talked about leadership with courage but embraced cowardice.  

Horgan’s unforgivable decision also marks an equally dark day for the province and Canada.

The federal government’s climate change plans rely on dramatic increases in hydro power generation — an approach that would lead to the flooding of First Nation land across northern Canada.

Horgan has now added Site C to that appalling plan.

The Premier, looking as uncomfortable as a character from Breaking Bad, offered the coarsest of excuses for this decision.

Thanks to deceitful practices and the blocking of regulatory oversight, the previous Liberal government committed taxpayers’ money to a bad project with severe geo-technical problems.

So, Horgan said, we now must dig the financial hole even bigger and deeper.

That’s the approach of a drunk gambler at the casino for the damned.

By refusing to walk away from the costs of cancelling the project — about $4 billion, including $2 billion in construction costs and the same in remediation expenses — the government is now willing to put the whole province at risk.

How can spending another $10 to $13 billion on a project not yield anything but more debt for taxpayers?

Given that public borrowing funds this boondoggle (where is free enterprise when you need it?), cost overruns will increase taxpayer debt and ramp up BC Hydro ratepayer costs. Rising interest rates will mean even more debt.

And what if there is no market for the dam’s overpriced electricity because energy conservation has reduced demand and smaller and leaner projects can meet the province’s needs?

The research on mega-dams, which the Horgan government ignored as stubbornly as Christy Clark, tells a truly human story about economic folly.

Researchers from Oxford University described mega-dams as “big bets gone awry.” The economic evidence shows that engineers “severely and systematically” underestimate the actual costs and schedules of large hydro-power dams, they found.

Few projects ever deliver a positive return, the researchers concluded, and as a consequence they recommended “energy alternatives that can be built sooner and with lower risk of schedule overruns, e.g. through modular design, are preferable.”

Horgan ignored these basic truths.

And he has now committed the province to a role in an even greater national disaster.

The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has set out climate plans in the Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy.

The little-read document boasts that the nation can reduce carbon emissions and meet Paris Agreement greenhouse gas targets by generating massive amounts of hydro power, which the document falsely describes as “emission free.”

It describes Canada as “the second largest producer of hydropower after China” and adds that the country now “has the opportunity to increase its clean electricity exports.”

The report says more than10 gigawatts of hydro capacity have been proposed or planned in Canada, tapping the Churchill, Nelson, Slave, Athabasca and Peace river systems — the equivalent of more than nine Site C dams.

But to fully “electrify” a “decarbonized” and “innovative” economy, the country would have to build the equivalent of 100 to 130 dams the size of Site C or Muskrat Falls over the next 32 years.

David Schindler, a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta and internationally celebrated water ecologist, has described the government strategy document as a fraud.

For starters, the necessary hydro capacity cannot be built over 32 years to meet the Paris Agreement commitments. (It takes, on average, about eight years to build a dam.)

Schindler adds that the document assumes erroneously that hydroelectric dam building produces no greenhouse gases.

“When the emissions from building, producing and transporting construction materials, clearing forests, and moving earth are added to emissions from flooded land, the GHG production from hydro is expected to be only slightly less than from burning natural gas,” he writes.

The catastrophic plan also ignores other bad impacts of dams, including elevated mercury in fish, blocked fish passage, destruction of fish habitat and downstream effects on river delta ecosystems.

Last but not least, the northern dam building proposed by the strategy “would violate the treaty rights of many First Nations by damaging the ecosystems upon which their livelihood depends.”

Horgan might think that he has ended the fight over Site C with another bad decision.

But he is mistaken there too.

Bad decisions have a history of generating more resistance — and that is one river that cannot be dammed.  [Tyee]

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