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Independent review on Site C confirms: shut it down!

Michael T Fenn

November 26, 2017

Thanks to tireless dedication from Indigenous communities, ranchers and land protectors in the Peace River valley, social justice and environmental activists (collectively denounced by former Premier Christy Clark as the “forces of no”), the Site C dam has been brought to public attention, became an election issue and now has now been exposed by an independent review by the BC utilities commission (BCUC). Its findings, released November 1, confirmed what Site C opponents have been saying since the project got the go ahead in 2014: that it represented a scandalous boondoggle for the benefit of Big Business (BC LNG), would destroy 100 square kilometers of pristine habitat and farmland, and would continue Canada’s long tradition of colonial displacement of First Nation peoples in violation of their Treaty Rights.

Liberal shenanigans all over again!

The Liberals touted Site C as a “green” energy alternative that would provide clean energy, bringing with it good jobs, economic growth, and prosperity to all in British Columbia including for First Nations. But the BCUC report exposed the BC Liberals and its big business backers in another public spending scandal involving BC Hydro.

Under Gordon Campbell’s tenure, the Independent Power Projects (IPP’s) was a privatized energy scheme designed to “encourage” private investors to get rich in the BC energy sector, by locked in high prices for investors while forcing the public crown corporation to resell surplus energy on the open market at a loss. This resulted in deficits of $300 million when BC hydro had often ran $300 million surpluses.

Similarly, the BCUC inquiry found that BC Hydro had greatly inflated the demand forecasts while seeming to wilfully underestimate the cost efficiencies of alternatives (wind, solar, geothermal and demand management techniques such as industrial curtailment). In one example Carol Linnitt  described how “BC Hydro submitted to the BCUC that it had screened out solar energy on the basis of a cost estimate of $97/MWh in 2025. In response to a follow-up question from the commission, BC Hydro admitted the cost of solar is now only half that at $48/MWh”.

The BCUC also found that the project originally budgeted at $8.3 billion, already in its third year of construction (costing the province roughly $2 million a day) is likely going exceed well over $10 billion. Construction has already cost $2 billion in public expenses, and would cost another $2 billion just to cancel the project, to remediate the site. The Liberals have thus created $4 billion in “facts on the ground” as a “point of no return” as a fiscal albatross they could hang over the necks of any serious opposition to the project—or any incumbent government who might be under popular pressure to cancel it.

Despite $4 billion of sunken costs the BCUC found that there would be no fiscal benefits to in continuing the project, and it recommended cancelation. The Liberals are trying to spin the controversy of cancelling site C away from themselves and on to its detractors, accusing “the left” of sacrificing $4 billion in public funds to placate their set of misguided principles. But the Liberal scam has caused outrage.

“Normally the construction of new electricity generating facilities can’t begin without BC’s independent regulator issuing something called a “certificate of public convenience and necessity,” noted journalist Emma Chilcrist of Desmog Candada. “But the Site C dam never had such a certificate. Why not? It was exempted from review under the previous BC Liberal government. That means construction on the dam began without any independent, in-depth examination of the costs of the project or the demand for the project. Seriously. The B.C. government skipped the regular review process and instead ploughed ahead with a mega project with no idea whether it was a) needed or b) the most cost effective source of electricity.”

Marc Lee, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said, “I would like to see a full inquiry to investigate how BC Hydro executives and the previous government essentially conspired to manufacture the case for Site C…As someone who strongly believes in public sector institutions and Crown corporations, to have our electricity utility lying to us, making up numbers and doing all sorts of spurious comparisons between its preferred option and the alternative is shameful.”

Climate crisis

The report also found BC Hydro’s assessment process seriously underestimated the ecological impacts of the project. Whatever the “green” credentials of hydro, scientists have long warned of the ecological destruction of “mega projects” of this kind. In the case of the Peace River region: the destruction of large areas of carbon-sequestering boreal forest, replaced by stagnant lakes and swamps producing methane, high and widespread levels of mercury contamination in the land, water, and fish.

Add to this the fact that this “green” energy is to expand a dirty industry, proven to be more CO2 emitting over its entire production cycle, than even coal, the Liberals’ greenwashing of site C and LNG is exposed for the fraud it is. As climate science is quite clear: to avoid ecological tipping points with catastrophic consequences, all fossil fuel production/consumption must be eliminated, to a maximum of 20 per cent (an 80 per cent reduction) over the next few decades and to zero soon after. This is what the international community, including Canada, committed to in the Paris climate agreement, in order to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees. But such a commitment, if it is at all serious, would mean rationing and aggressively mobilizing what is left of the carbon budget, toward getting sustainable modes of production on line (In energy, food, transportation, housing, urban design, etc., etc.). This needs to coincide with greatly reducing unnecessary carbon emissions, which, apart from heating the planet past the point of being safely inhabitable by humans and most other biological organisms, is poisoning the planets land, air, and water at a remarkable rate.

While the “economics” seem to be working against the Liberals dream of making BC a fossil fuel superpower, the history of energy prices, its boom and bust nature, and capitalism’s drive for incessant economic growth, militate against the notion that fossil fuels will naturally be replaced by renewables. That is unless government intercedes in a serious way against the profits of oil, gas and coal companies.

Colonial “consultations and consent”

While BCUC’s mandate was not to assess directly the impact to First Nations, it did echo the hailstorm of criticism by the scientific community and international human rights groups over the project. “The joint review panel clearly stated, ‘You haven’t done a cumulative impact assessment. You don’t know if there’s enough usable land left for the First Nations,’” said Chief Roland Wilson of the West Moberly Band, one of the original Treaty 8 nations of the Peace River region. “Well there isn’t. Two-thirds of the territory has been taken up. We have a third left and Site C is a big part of that…At what point do they cross a threshold of too much land taken up? I think they’ve crossed it already.”

“The Peace River valley is one of the last places we can go out on the land with our elders and learn the stories and traditions that make us who we are,” says Helen Knott, a member of the Prophet River First Nation who traveled to Ottawa with other community members to demand Trudeau and Federal liberals live up to their campaign promise to respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). “If governments can get away with simply ignoring our treaty, we’ll soon be left with nothing.”

The BC liberals of course have cynically pointed to Impact Benefit Agreements (IBA’s) as proof that they have consulted and received consent from First Nations. But the fact is that this “consultation” and presumed “consent” has been managed by a powerful corporate colonial state, as it has always been. The goal of colonial “consultations” is to coerce consent—while displacing Indigenous communities from their own land, and laying waste to the environment and their way of life.

As Chief Roland Willson explained: “You don’t consult after you make the decision. You consult to make the decision. The consultation informs the decision-making process, not the other way around,” he said. “How meaningful is it if they just make decisions? They send us a piece of paper and give us 10 days to comment. We send comments back, and we get no response. We ask, what happened to our concerns? They say, ‘We took them into consideration.’”

Site C has been challenged in both BC and Federal courts by the West Moberly and Prophet River nations, which have refused to sign IBA’s. But even nations who obviously felt compelled to sign these agreements with BC Hydro, have nonetheless filed a litany of lawsuits over related industrial and LNG development on their lands. For example Blueberry River nation, which signed the original treaty 8 agreement in 1900 have ongoing lawsuit claims that the cumulative impacts from extensive industrial development, including site C, has violated. The claim asserts that Blueberry River members can no longer access uncontaminated land and resources capable of sustaining traditional patterns of economic activity and land use, as guaranteed by the treaty. These include hunting, eating moose, harvesting berries and medicinal plants and teaching children their language while on the land.

As Liz Logan, Tribal Chief with the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, explained, “Negotiating a benefits agreement for Site C is incomprehensible because this project and its impacts violate our treaty rights and you cannot attach a dollar value to that.”

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