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Four Decades and Counting: A Brief History of the Site C Dam

This is a guest post by Ray Eagle.

Many British Columbians may not realize that the $9 billion Site C dam, currently under construction on the Peace River, has a 46-year back-story.

B.C. Hydro began engineering studies for Site C back in 1971. In the early 1980s B.C. Hydro went before the newly formed British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC), created “to ensure that ratepayers receive safe, reliable, and nondiscriminatory energy services at fair rates from the utilities it regulates, and that shareholders of those utilities are afforded a reasonable opportunity to earn a fair return on their invested capital.”

In November 1983, the BCUC issued a 315-page summary that stated the dam was not needed at that time, while at the same time criticizing B.C. Hydro’s forecasting ability.

“The Commission examined the methodology of Hydro’s forecasting . . . and concluded that, while significant improvements have been made, further improvements can and should be made to improve reliability,” the report read.

Other alternatives to the dam, including wind and solar, were considered but geothermal was the only one that the commissioners viewed as a substitute for Site C. After lengthy consideration the review concluded:

“The Commission does not believe that an Energy Project Certificate should be issued at this time. The evidence does not demonstrate that construction must or should start immediately or that Site C is the only source of supply . . . we therefore conclude that a certificate should not be issued until (l) an acceptable forecast demonstrates that construction must begin and (2) a comparison of alternative feasible system demonstrates that Site C is the best project to meet the anticipated supply deficiency.”

B.C. Hydro resuscitated the project on Sept. 18, 1989, as reported in the Vancouver Sun: “B.C. Hydro has stepped up plans to build Site C hydroelectric dam . . . quietly reviving the multi-billion-dollar project shelved by the Provincial cabinet in 1983 . . . Hydro’s move has projected needs which may or may not be realized.”

Controversy continued to follow the dam.

On May 10, 1990, the Vancouver Sun reported remarks made by then Energy Minister Jack Davis at an Electric Energy Forum: “Power projects initiated by B.C. Hydro will be increasingly guided by environmental concerns because of mounting public pressure.” Noting the province’s abundance of power sources, he said: “We have the scope to be different.”

However, during a 1991 Social Credit party leadership campaign the winner, Rita Johnston declared in her policy statement that she wanted to accelerate construction of the “$3 billion” dam. Johnston’s leadership was brief because the Socreds were defeated in October 1991.

In 1993, the dam was declared dead by then BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen. Site C is dead for two reasons,” Eliesen said. “The fiscal exposure is too great . . . the dam is too costly. Also it is environmentally unacceptable.”

Despite these twists and turns, B.C. Hydro’s staff worked diligently to keep the dam alive.

Fast forward to April 19, 2010, when then B.C. Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell made his announcement that Site C was on again, now branded as a “clean energy project” and an important part of “B.C.’s economic and ecological future.”

Campbell claimed the dam would power 460,000 new homes and repeated the mantra of an increasing power demand of 20 to 40 per cent in the following 20 years.

In the ensuing seven years since the 2010 announcement, power demand has stayed virtually the same, despite BC Hydro’s forecast for it to climb nearly 20 per cent during that time. The reality is B.C.’s electricity demand has been essentially flat since 2005, despite ongoing population growth.

Site C dam construction

Construction on the Site C dam on the Peace River in the fall of 2016. Photo: Garth Lenz.

Campbell resigned in 2011 amidst uproar over the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), opening the field for a leadership race, which Christy Clark won. That brings us to the May 2013 election, during which Clark pushed liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports as the solution to B.C.’s economic woes. With the LNG dream came a potential new demand for grid electricity, making Site C even more of a hot topic.

Four years on from Clark’s pronouncement there are no LNG plants up and running, despite her promise of thousands of jobs. Without a market for Site C’s power, Clark has started ruminating about sending it to Alberta, despite a lack of transmission or a clear market.

Oxford University Professor Bent Flyvbjerg has studied politicians’ fascination with mega projects, describing the rapture they feel building monuments to themselves: “Mega projects garner attention, which adds to the visibility they gain from them.”

This goes some way to explaining the four-decade obsession with building the Site C dam, despite the lack of clear demand for the electricity.

Ray Eagle first became aware of Site C in the mid 1970s and has helped fight it through the Wilderness Committee and many published letters in provincial papers.

Main Image: Peace Valley farmer in her garden before being expropriated by BC Hydro in late 2016. Photo: Garth Lenz.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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