Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government issued 14 permits for work on the $9 billion Site C dam during the writ period of the last election — a move that was offside according to people familiar with the project and the workings of the federal government.
“By convention, only routine matters are dealt with after the writ is dropped,” said Harry Swain, the chair of the Joint Review Panel that reviewed the Site C dam. “Permits and licences are only issued when a government considers the matter to be non-controversial and of no great public importance.”
Swain served for 22 years in the federal government, ending as deputy minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and later Industry. In an exclusive interview with DeSmog Canada last year, Swain said the B.C. government shouldn’t have moved ahead with construction on the dam until the demand case became clearer.
Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May noticed all of the Site C permits had been issued in late September, just weeks before October’s federal election.
“They saw that they were unlikely to form government again so they began making appointments and decisions during the election,” May told DeSmog Canada. “Usually during the writ period the government operates as a care-taker government, doing what’s absolutely necessary.”
Land clearing has begun on the dam, while opposition has continued to grow. First Nations are challenging the project in court over treaty issues and a protest camp was set up in the construction zone in December. (In Photos: The Destruction of the Peace River Valley for the Site C Dam)
“These permits are really quite distressing,” May said. “You get two departments issuing all these permits in a two-week period. It looks orchestrated by the former government.”
A broad coalition of organizations from across Canada has called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt construction of the Site C dam by refusing to issue further federal permits needed for construction of the project, which will flood 23,000 hectares of land along 107-kilometres of the Peace River Valley.
An open letter from the coalition urges Trudeau to rescind all permits and to re-examine the previous government’s approval of the dam, which was given despite the review panel’s finding that it would infringe upon the treaty rights under Treaty 8.
“It’s bad enough to have disputed lands devastated by damage like this. But to have actual treaty rights and treaty-protected activities essentially removed … the honour of the Crown is at stake in something like this,” May said. “The Crown chose to ignore a finding in the review that these treaty rights were going to be irreparably harmed.”
May argued that, given its commitment to a new relationship with Canada’s First Nations, the federal government shouldn’t issue any further permits.
“They can’t undo permits that have already been issued or replace forests that have already been clear-cut, but any future permits need to have a very huge hold until treaty rights issues are resolved,” she said.
“The review panel’s report clearly stated that not only was there massive environmental damage that could not be mitigated but that the erosion of treaty rights could not be mitigated. That’s an astonishing conclusion. Especially since the panel also found that the public interest case was pretty muddy.”
BC Hydro is scheduled to go to court on Monday to seek an injunction to have the protest camp removed. Documents filed in that case focus on financial issues, with BC Hydro arguing a delay in construction will cost it money, while expert witnesses for the protesters argue that a one-year delay will actually save taxpayers $267 million because power demand forecasts have fallen.
BC Hydro has always argued the financial argument for the project is strong because of growing power demand, but economists and the crown corporation’s former CEO Marc Eliesen have challenged that and called for a third-party assessment.
Meantime, B.C.’s Auditor-General stated this week that the Site C dam has been identified as a project needing an audit, but no timeline has been set for that work.
“As a British Columbia ratepayer it’s very clear that Site C is likely to put British Columbia into a negative economic situation, at least at the beginning of its lifespan without any benefit to British Columbians,” May said. “It’s for the LNG industry.”
Andrew Weaver, leader of the B.C. Green Party, added his voice to the call for a delay in Site C construction in the legislature on Thursday, citing significant risk to taxpayers and the provincial economy.
“Site C should have been subject to the B.C. Utilities Commission, but the government felt it would slow down their political agenda too much,” he said. “It is risky and foolish. British Columbians are going to be paying for this project for decades.”
Weaver argued that in the absence of a vastly expanded LNG industry, the power from the Site C dam won’t be needed — an argument DeSmog Canada has explored in depth.
Weaver also warned on Thursday that proceeding with Site C is actively driving clean energy investment out of the province.
Two weeks ago the Canadian Wind Energy Association announced it was closing up shop in B.C. because of a lack of opportunity to develop new wind projects in the province. Instead, the association will focus on Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“We obviously have limited resources, and we’re going to focus our efforts on those markets which provide the greatest opportunities in the short term to see more wind energy deployed in the country,” CanWEA president Robert Hornung told Business in Vancouver.
Hornung added: “While B.C. has tremendous untapped potential for wind energy … it’s also true that, at this time, there’s no vision of short-term opportunities emerging in B.C.”
Industrial demand for power in B.C. is falling due to the closure of mines and pulp and paper mills, both big electricity consumers. And with the Site C dam on the books, BC Hydro doesn’t anticipate any calls for power until 2030 — which means the prospects of new wind power projects have effectively been killed.
"Rather than let the market take the risk for energy infrastructure projects, this government is using billions of taxpayer dollars to get Site C ‘past the point of no return,’ ” Weaver said.
George Heyman, the NDP critic for the green economy, told the Georgia Straight this week that the government is failing to support renewable energy.
"That's a problem for development of jobs and industry in every corner of B.C.," Heyman said.
"And it's a problem for British Columbians who think we should be taking advantage of dropping tech prices and advancing technology in both wind and solar and other forms of energy production — instead of throwing all of our eggs into the basket of one big dam in Northeast B.C. with a price tag that's likely to go up steeply in the coming years."
Image: Construction on the Site C Dam by Garth Lenz.
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