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GIANT BC INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECT A CONTROVERSIAL ISSUE FOR UPCOMING PROVINCIAL ELECTION
By Ronan O'Doherty
Site C, a large dam being built on the Peace River in North Eastern British Columbia, could be a major sticking point in the upcoming provincial election.
At $9 billion, the dam is the priciest infrastructure project in the province's history and even though construction has been underway since the summer of 2015, opponents aren't giving up hope that the project could be cancelled.
British Columbia Premier, Christie Clark has vowed that she intends to get the project "passed the point of no return."
Her political opponents are taking differing stances.
"Site C is a Christy Clark pet project that has been poorly planned, controversial and at risk of doubling in cost," a representative for NDP opposition leader, John Horgan, wrote in an email to this reporter, "She’s making a $9 billion gamble with British Columbians' money, leaving hydro customers on the hook for the costs. British Columbians are at risk of massive increases on their hydro bills."
If Horgan is elected, he has said that his party will ask the BC Utilities Commission to make an independent determination on the feasibility of continuing this project.
Clark's Liberals opted out of a BC Utilities Commission review when they decided to move forward with construction on the dam this time around.
The Commission ruled the dam unnecessary in the 1980s, saying the need wasn't there for the colossal project.
Proponents of the hydroelectric dam believe it'll be a clean, reliable energy source for future generations.
"This project will produce 1100MW capacity," said David Conway, Community Relations Manager for BC Hydro, "and capacity for us as a utility is very important."
He pointed out that like most utilities in Canada, BC Hydro are a peak winter load utility. During those months they need everything in their system up and running and able to deliver.
"There are many forms of electrical generation but some of them can deliver capacity and some can't," Conway said, "When we throw the light switch on, people want it now."
Since the dam is the third one on the Peace River, and has the storage of the WAC Bennett Dam as well as the Peace Canyon Dam to draw upon, Conway says the impact of the dam will be considerably less than if storage had to be built for Site C as well.
Conway admitted that the upfront cost of the dam was quite high but said that when completed the project will provide enough energy for approximately 450,000 home per year.
He drew attention to the long term benefits, saying that the cost of the project will be amortized over a 70 year period and that the dam will be physically available 100+ years.
"It's much like buying a home," he said, "When you buy it, it seems expensive but when you end up paying it off, it looks like a bargain."
Conway also made note of the economic benefits to the region and province, saying it will provide $130 million to local GDP as well as $3.2 billion to the provincial GDP.
In addition to that, a legacy benefit of $2.4 million annually over the next seventy years, with inflation being considered, is being provided to the Peace River Regional Community to do with as they see fit.
Construction of the project is also supposed to create 10,000 person years of direct employment.
Joe Foy is the National Campaign Director for the Wilderness Committee. His organization has been trying to stop the dam being built since 2010.
They believe that the construction of the dam goes against First Nations treaties, specifically Treaty 8, which he says was meant to enable a fair sharing and respect on the territory.
Foy said that the land that would be flooded is home to sacred sites to the First Nations, grave sites of the First Nations and the best farm land in British Columbia's north.
"In BC, since 1970s, we've had Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) which is meant to preserve farmland," Foy said, "We're a mountainous province so farmland is at a premium."
"Site C dam would represent the largest deletion of land in the ALR in its history," He went on to say, "and this is very important area for farmland in the north; perhaps the most important."
His organization doesn't believe that the project makes sense from a dollars and sense perspective.
Foy said that electricity that would come from the Site C dam would come out at a time where British Columbia already produces significantly more electricity than it uses.
"This electricity would cost about $100 per megawatt hour (Mwh), Foy said, "We can already buy electricity from the US at $20 per Mwh or we can buy electricity from Alberta for $50 per Mwh.
Foy is hoping that the people of British Columbia consider this on May 15th when it comes time to cast their votes for political representation.
Even though the project is well under way, with much of the land cleared and riverbanks being firmed up, it's still far from finished.
If construction continues on pace, the plan is to begin filling the reservoir in 2022 and be generating power in 2024.
"We may leave a billion or two behind but when you factor in the power lines that this thing’s going to use, costs could go as high as $15 billion," Foy said, "It's like a trip to Las Vegas that's gone wrong; It's always a good time to walk away from the table."