Garth-Lenz-9031.jpg

It’s Finally Happening: Site C Gets Its Date with the B.C. Utilities Commission

David Vardy has a message for British Columbia about continuing work on the Site C dam while the project undergoes a quick independent review by the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC).

“My comment to British Columbia is a big red sign saying ‘Stop.’ This is crazy. Don’t go ahead with this [project],” Vardy told DeSmog Canada.

“While the review is taking place the activity should be suspended.”

Vardy is the former chair and CEO of Newfoundland’s public utilities board, which reviewed the “boondoggle” Muskrat Falls dam after a new provincial government came to power. As in the case of Site C and B.C.’s former Liberal government, the previous Newfoundland government had refused to allow independent scrutiny of Muskrat Falls.

On Wednesday the B.C. cabinet instructed the BCUC to provide two reports on Site C — a preliminary report by September 20 and a final report by November 1.

“We appreciate that a lot of people’s lives are on hold, especially in the northeast,” Energy Minister Michelle Mungall told a media briefing today, “and that’s why we want to make this an expedited process.”

Mungall was in part referring to people like Peace Valley farmers Ken and Arlene Boon, whose property was expropriated by the B.C. government last December for the relocation of a provincial highway for Site C. The Boons have remained in their farmhouse, now owned by BC Hydro, but their lease has expired and they are anxiously waiting to find out what will happen to their third generation home and property.

Mungall said no Peace Valley families will be forced to move and no further Site C contracts will be issued during the review, news that was met with relief by the Boons.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Ken Boon, reached by phone while moving hay bales. “That pretty much covers it.”

The BCUC review will focus on assessing whether or not the $8.8 billion Site C hydro dam is truly on time and on budget, as the former Liberal government claimed, and what the costs are to suspend, terminate or continue with the project.

Vardy, an economist, said Muskrat Falls went through a “quick and dirty review,” a process that took five months and resulted in the utilities board concluding that it lacked sufficient information to make a recommendation about whether or not to proceed with the dam on Labrador’s Churchill River.

Newfoundland’s new government went ahead with construction of the dam, which the CEO of Nalcor Energy, the Newfoundland equivalent of BC Hydro, has now admitted is a “boondoggle.” The cost of Muskrat Falls has ballooned to $12.7 billion, about $5 billion more than the price tag when the project was approved, and it will cause the average Newfoundland household’s hydro bills to jump by an estimated $1,800 a year.

Vardy said it was a “tall order” to ask the BCUC to review Site C in such a short amount of time.

“The main concern that I have is that the timing seems to be very short given the complexity of the review. It’s a very constricted time frame,” he said.

But Mark Jaccard, the former head of the B.C. Utilities Commission, said three months is plenty of time to review Site C. There are “all sorts of precedents” for that, said Jaccard, a professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University.

Jaccard said he once led a very quick hearing on gasoline prices in B.C. A few independent experts were asked to write a quick review on a narrowed range of possible responses to the key questions in the terms of reference.

The BCUC then issued a 20-page report and instructed intervenors — people with a stake in the issue who had signed up to participate in the hearing — to limit their criticisms, evidence, suggestions and arguments to about 20 pages, with a time limit for response.

“We received all their material, digested it, and significantly edited our findings,” said Jaccard, who headed the BCUC from 1992 to 1997. “So think of that as a paper hearing.”

David Austin, a Vancouver lawyer specializing in energy issues, agreed that three months is sufficient for a thorough Site C review.

“As long as the necessary expertise is assembled the timelines are achievable,” Austin told DeSmog Canada, adding that work on the hydro project should continue in the meantime.

“Essentially the utilities commission is determining whether Site C can break even or make money from 2024 to 2094,” said Austin.

“Until the government has some basic facts before it, it shouldn’t terminate workers. That’s just the price that has to be paid given that the project was commenced in the way it was.”

Vardy also warned that focusing on Site C’s job creation potential rather than its overall cost and need for the electricity “makes no sense.”

“You can’t rationalize this on the basis of job creation.”

In Newfoundland, where 5,000 people were employed to work at Muskrat Falls during the project’s peak construction period, it cost ratepayers half a million dollars for each job that was created, said Vardy, who cautioned that “the only thing that really matters” in an economic assessment of Site C are future costs, not money that has already been spent.

“Even though you might have spent a lot of money — billions of dollars — you’ve got to set that aside and ask the fundamental question: how much is it going to cost to finish this and how much is it going to cost to stop it?”

The terms of reference for the Site C review, which Vardy called “very comprehensive,” include asking the BCUC to advise on other energy portfolios and conservation initiatives that can provide clean energy to BC Hydro customers at similar or lower costs to Site C.

The BCUC has said it is “ready and able” to review Site C if asked by the government.

Mungall said there will be a public engagement process during the BCUC review, and that it will be up to the BCUC to determine the format it will take.

She said the B.C. cabinet will make the final decision on Site C.

Image: Peace Valley Ken Boon in his kitchen, by Garth Lenz.

New title

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired eight journalists in less than a year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 2,200 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

We’ve drafted a plan to make this year our biggest yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

UN committee rebukes Canada for failing to get Indigenous Peoples’ consent for industrial projects

In a rebuke to Canada, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has expressed regret that work continues on the Coastal GasLink...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Help power our ad-free, non‑profit journalism
Get The Narwhal in your inbox!

People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism