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‘Unprecedented’ Comments from Chair of Site C Dam Panel Raised in B.C. Question Period

Revelations from DeSmog Canada’s exclusive sit-down interview with Harry Swain, the chair of the panel that reviewed the $8.8 billion Site C dam, were raised during question period in the B.C. legislature on Thursday.

Andrew Weaver, Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA and Deputy Leader of the B.C. Green Party, asked the government about the economics of the Site C dam project in light of Swain’s unprecedented interview.

Swain, a former Deputy Minister of Industry Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, is thought to be the first review panel member in Canadian history to speak out about a project in this manner. His comments to DeSmog Canada prompted follow-up by the Globe and Mail, CBC, CKNW and CFAX.

“Mr. Swain was very clear that the government was rushed in approving Site C, and British Columbians will pay for their haste,” Weaver said during question period. “As Mr. Swain said: ‘Wisdom would have been waiting for two, three, four years to see whether the projections they’ — that’s BC Hydro — ‘were making had any basis in fact.’ That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement for the fiscal underpinning of Site C.”

The panel that reviewed Site C predicted that the dam will lose $800 million in its first four years of production while it sells excess power for a third of its cost on the export market.

“My goodness, we could use that money to build a state-of-the-art sewage system in Victoria,” Weaver quipped.

Weaver continued during question period:

“Mr. Swain is only the most recent person to suggest waiting a few years to see if electricity demand for the project materializes. We could still build Site C down the road if necessary, but we could use the additional time to properly explore cheaper alternatives like our vast geothermal potential in B.C. We have the time. LNG final investment decisions are delayed or not happening at all or somewhere down the yellow brick road or perhaps in never-never land.”

Weaver asked Bill Bennett, the Minister of Energy and Mines: “Given the massive costs associated with rushing into Site C, will he hit the pause button on construction for two to four years, as recommended by Mr. Swain, and use the time to save British Columbians money and explore viable alternatives?"

Bennett responded saying, “I categorically disagree with the premise of the question” and then went on to say: “Fair enough questions about the need for the electricity, the cost of the project. These are all legitimate issues that we should be debating in this House.”

Bennett then quoted several excerpts from the panel’s report, including that Site C “would be the least expensive of the alternatives, and its cost advantages would increase with passing decades as inflation makes alternatives more costly” and that BC Hydro “has done a responsible job in forecasting.”

The panel's report also said it did not have the information, time or resources to look at the accuracy of cost estimates and recommended that, if the project proceeds, costs and need should be examined in detail by the province’s independent regulator, the B.C. Utilities Commission. The panel noted it could not conclude the dam was needed on the schedule presented and said the province had failed to investigate alternatives — something it was instructed to do 32 years ago, when the utilities commission first turned down the Site C dam on the Peace River. 

Swain called this failure to research alternatives a ‘dereliction of duty’ in his interview with DeSmog Canada.

“Those are very strong words from a very highly regarded senior official from the Canadian government,” Weaver said Thursday in the legislature. “To be even more blunt, it’s recklessness on the part of the government.”

Weaver continued:

"What we need right now is a government that is willing to show leadership on this, willing to put good policy ahead of ideological politics. My question to the minister is this. Will he listen to the call from every member of this side of the House, along with the expert opinion of the joint review panel and countless others, to send the Site C project to the British Columbia Utilities Commission for a proper regulatory review?"

Bennett continued his refusal to send the project for a review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.

Bennett responded:

"B.C. Hydro figures that we’re going to need 1,100 megawatts of electricity in 2024. We set about, over the past two years, to determine what’s the best way to get that 1,100 megawatts of electricity. We looked at absolutely everything, and the decision that we made on this side of the House was to honour the ratepayer. We chose the option that is the fairest, lowest cost to the ratepayer, but that side of the House wants us to do something different."

But the panel that reviewed the Site C proposal found the government hadn't looked at "absolutely everything," as Bennett states.

“The panel concludes that a failure to pursue research over the last 30 years into B.C.’s geothermal resources has left BC Hydro without information about a resource that BC Hydro thinks may offer up to 700 megawatts of firm, economic power with low environmental costs,” the panel's report read.

The Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA) has argued geothermal can meet all of B.C.’s future energy needs at a lower cost than Site C with fewer environmental impacts. The association has requested meetings with Minister Bennett with no success.

"We welcome him to become more informed and to engage in constructive dialogue with the association and with our members," said Alison Thompson, chair of CanGEA.

In a press release, Weaver said the minister's talking points are missing the point. “This dam didn’t make sense for B.C. thirty years ago, and it doesn’t make sense now.”

“The question that needs to be asked is what’s the rush?” Weaver added. “LNG isn’t materializing along the timeline promised by government. Even if B.C. Hydro’s current projections are true, we still have up to four years before we need to start building the dam. We should use that time to explore alternatives before embarking on the largest infrastructure project in B.C. history.”

The full official transcript of the exchange in the Legislature can be viewed on Hansard.

BC Hydro is scheduled to begin construction on the Site C dam this summer, but the project is facing six legal challenges, including one that alleges that Cabinet erred in dismissing key portions of the joint review panel’s findings on the project.  

The dam would be the third on the Peace River and would flood 83 kilometres of the Peace Valley, impacting 13,000 hectares of agricultural land. The project is opposed by B.C.’s Treaty 8 First Nations, several of which have filed lawsuits.

Emma Gilchrist is a reporter, editor, public speaker and spreadsheet-keeper. She started her journalism career more than 15 years ago…

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