What You Need to Know About the B.C. Utilities Commission and the Site C Dam

Until 11:13 on Monday morning, the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC) had a website that was as much of a snoozer as its name. It had tiny lines of text and looked like something that harkened back to the horse and buggy days of the World Wide Web.

Just as all eyes turn to the BCUC — which will begin a review of the Site C hydro dam project any day now — the commission is striving to find a bit more sizzle and pop when it comes to public relations.

It launched a new website on Monday, with big photos and cute little icons representing BCUC areas of oversight: electricity utilities, gas utilities, intra provincial oil pipelines and auto insurance.

Commission spokesperson Katharine Carlsen described it as a “modernized” look that will make it easier to engage British Columbians.

The BCUC also has a new logo — a map of the province in orange dots of various sizes and shades, like shining lights — to replace the previous B.C. Coat of Arms it used.

The logo, part of the BCUC’s “new visual identity,” was requested by the former Liberal administration to emphasize the commission’s independence from government, according to a news release.

You can even follow the commission’s new public engagement messaging on Twitter.

“BCUC ready and able to review Site C if directed by government,” said one BCUC tweet posted not long before the New Democratic Party came to power in an alliance with the Greens.

What is the BCUC?

So what, exactly, is the BCUC? And what does it have to do with Site C?

When the newly minted B.C. cabinet meets tomorrow, the NDP government is expected to fulfill an election promise and refer the $8.8 billion Site C dam project to the BCUC for review.

The review, according to statements made by Premier John Horgan, will be expedited. An initial BCUC report is expected after just six weeks, with a final report due six weeks after that.

Some important clues about the scope of the Site C review — known as the terms of reference — were revealed last week in Horgan’s mandate letter to Energy Minister Michelle Mungall.

The review, according to Mungall’s instructions, will focus on Site C’s “economic viability and consequences to British Columbians” in the context of the “current supply and demand conditions prevailing in the B.C. market.”

In other words, it will look at how much our hydro rates will climb if Site C is built, on top of rate increases that are already scheduled.

Some call the BCUC a public watchdog for large energy projects like Site C. But Mark Jaccard, who headed the BCUC from 1992 to 1997, said that is incorrect.

The BCUC is a “watchdog” on the fiscal responsibility of “everyday utility capital and operating expenditures, which then determines electricity rates,” said Jaccard, a professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University.

In the commission’s words, it makes sure that ratepayers — including BC Hydro customers — receive safe and reliable energy services “at fair rates.”

The BCUC also carries out “fair and transparent” reviews of matters within its jurisdiction and “considers public input where public interest is impacted,” according to a recent news release.

In the case of Site C, though, the BCUC noted that it had no jurisdiction to review the project, which it described as “an exempt project” under the 2010 Clean Energy Act passed by the former Liberal government.

Jaccard explained that energy projects like Site C “are the decision of cabinet, which may or may not ask for a BCUC review in advance of deciding, under any terms of reference it deems important.”

Deja Vu: Site C and the BCUC

In the early 1980s, when the BCUC examined Site C, it took almost two years to issue its report. The report was delivered only after nine months of public hearings, held in a Fort St John hotel, on First Nations reserves and in Vancouver, remembers Adrienne Peacock, who sat through it all.

Peacock, fresh from completing a PhD in zoology at UBC, was the coordinator of the Peace Valley Environment Association at the time. One of her responsibilities was to find expert witnesses to testify about Site C’s potential impacts, including the little-known consequences of methylmercury contamination of bull trout and other fish.

The hearings were very court-like, recalled Peacock. Panel members sat in a row at one table — only one of the five appointed panel members was a BCUC commissioner — and a brigade of BC Hydro representatives and lawyers sat up front.

People giving testimony did so from a stand with a microphone, and had to take an oath as though they were in a courtroom. “They swore to tell the truth,” said Peacock. “It was quite formal that way.”

In May 1983, in a 314-page report, the BCUC concluded that Site C construction should not proceed at that time, a recommendation followed by the government. The panel noted that Site C’s rate impacts “could become significantly larger if the project is built prematurely,” if costs escalated or if interest rates increased unexpectedly.

“The evidence does not demonstrate that construction must or should start immediately or that Site C is the best project to meet the anticipated supply deficiency,” said the report.

If that sounds familiar it’s because the Joint Review Panel that examined Site C for the federal and provincial governments, 30 years later, concluded that BC Hydro had not fully demonstrated the need for Site C within the timeframe it provided.

The Panel recommended that Site C be dispatched to the BCUC for review, a recommendation ignored by the Liberal government.

The former government of Christy Clark appointed eight out of BCUC’s nine commissioners, who work part-time and earn $650 per day, for annual salaries ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000.

Clark also appointed BCUC Chair and CEO David Morton, who recently welcomed the idea of a Site C review. How long a review would take to complete would be “determined by the terms of reference and the level of public engagement,” Morton said.

The BCUC’s revamped website and Twitter feed may, however, prove to be about as close to formal public engagement on Site C as British Columbians get this time around given the tight timeframe anticipated for the review.

Image: Site C dam construction in July 2017 by Vicky Husband.

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

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