Site C: B.C.'s damn dam

Everyone in B.C. would agree that The Big News this December was the final approval to keep building the Site C Hydroelectric Dam on the Peace River near Fort St. John.

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law

I think everyone in British Columbia would agree that The Big News this December was the final approval to keep building the Site C Hydroelectric Dam on the Peace River near Fort St. John. Despite protests from environmentalists and others, the B.C. NDP government (which campaigned on canceling the project part way through construction) begrudgingly gave Site C its go-ahead blessing on Dec. 11.

Site C is the third hydroelectric dam on the Peace and, when completed, would provide 1100 MW of electrical capacity, producing 5100 GW hours of electricity annually which is apparently enough to power the equivalent of 450,000 homes per year in B.C. As the third dam on one river system, Site C will use water already stored behind the existing WAC Bennett Dam to generate about 35 per cent of the Bennett Dam's energy with only 5 per cent of the reservoir area. It will also be the first big dam built in the province since 1984 and will become B.C.'s fourth-largest producer of electricity.

Site C is regularly in the news because it is contentious. Many in the environmental movement don't want Site C because the dam will flood approximately 5500 hectares in and around the Peace River (encompassing about 83 km of River Valley along the Peace and its tributaries). Some of this land is deemed agricultural (although in reality, not all of it is actually used for farming) and some of it is forest and wildlife habitat.

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The dam is also contentious because, as some pundits have said, it's questionable whether the immense cost of the dam (something like $10 billion) is worth the expected profit given an uncertain market for electricity and the inability of economists and others to reliably predict  power consumption rates in the future. In other words, nobody knows for certain whether B.C. can sell all the energy it produces at favorable rates.

There have also been issues raised by First Nations with respect to the lands to be flooded. And finally, there is a debate about the actual approval process.

Despite the B.C. government approving the continuation of the project, count on more legal actions to try to stop it.

One would intuitively think that hydroelectricity is a good thing. It doesn't burn coal or oil or natural gas, so it's good for B.C.'s "carbon footprint." Site C is predicted to stop approximately 30 million to 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from being spewed into the atmosphere (which is also a good thing). It’s renewable energy (as long as there's rain and snow to fill up the Peace River). And people seem to be buying more and more electronic gadgets to plug into their wall sockets these days, without necessarily realizing that electricity doesn't simply come from wall sockets. Given that many countries have mandated an end to diesel and gasoline powered automobiles within 25 years, one would also think that we will need even more electricity to charge up all those electric cars and trucks.

The reality is that the bulk of our electricity either comes from hydro or it comes from hydrocarbons. Hydro is reasonably benign and doesn’t belch out smoke and other greenhouse gasses. Yes, there are environmental costs in terms of construction and flooding, but when compared to the other hydrocarbonated options, hydro is better for our health and cleaner for the environment. When compared to the other fossil fuel options, it's a no-brainer.

If Site C lasts 80 years (the expected lifespan of the dam) perhaps solar, geothermal, wind and other technologies will catch up and make the dam obsolete by 2100. But until then, "the spice must flow" (to echo Frank Herbert's "Dune"). The power must flow to heat our homes, power our ever increasing number of electronic gadgets, power our industries, keep the lights on in our homes, schools, hospitals and businesses. And if we can sell the surplus to California or Alberta at a profit, make it so.

My bet is that in 20 years, British Columbians will be very happy that Site C was built, in the same way most of us are very happy previous B.C. governments built the B.C. Ferry system, the WAC Bennett dam, Expo 86, the Coquihalla and other B.C. highways, the 2010 Winter Olympics, the new Port Mann Bridge, the Golden Ears Bridge and other controversial (and expensive) projects. 

There was some risk that the new NDP government would actually cancel Site C, even though the dam is part way through construction. Indeed, many NDP candidates campaigned on the cancellation of the project and are now writing to their constituents about how awful the decision was and how sorry they are. (Watch them take credit for it if the dam is a huge moneymaker in the future).

But realistically, cancellation of Site C would have cost the province's taxpayers $4 billion in penalties and damages, plunging B.C. into a profoundly large deficit. Add to that the cost to finance that higher deficit and the ramifications to B.C.'s credit rating, and it was pretty clear that the government would rather put money into schools and education than pay higher interest on a ballooned debt.

And of course, if they canceled the project, more than 2,500 workers would have been laid off  just in time for Christmas; outraging the unions and more or less angering everyone outside Vancouver and Victoria who depend on the resource sector and construction projects for their livelihood. The NDP would lose the next election because they would be chastised as the "No Development Party." Instead, they upset some of their supporters from the environmental movement, and anti-development champagne socialist activists in Victoria and Vancouver.  

However, they proved, at least to me, that they could make a tough decision, regardless of the effect on some of their supporters. Sometimes, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. And sometimes, politicians actually have to make tough decisions. Campaigning is easy. Governing is hard. They seemed to pass the first hard test of their administration.

Of course, B.C. being B.C., the outrage machine is in full swing. Columnists on the left have called the decision cowardly, unforgivable, appalling and a host of other colorful adjectives. Social media is on fire with criticism of the decision. The local radio phone-in shows are equally on fire with callers vowing (with fully charged cell phones) never to vote for the NDP again.

Andrew Weaver, the Green Party leader who holds who holds the balance of power in B.C., isn't prepared to vote down the government on Site C (and cause an election over the issue) despite the fact that he is equally outraged.

The thing about outrage is this: not all British Columbians are outraged. Just the loudest ones are.

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