Reports on Hydro fiascos in Manitoba and B.C. expose the rot at Crown-owned utilities

4 March 2021


Transmission lines, Globe and Mail
Full text of this excellent piece by Konrad Yakabuski in the Globe and Mail, March 4, 2021
Misery loves company. And so it was that taxpayers in Manitoba and British Columbia found themselves commiserating last week with the release of separate reports detailing the mismanagement and dissimulation that has left them to foot the bill for uneconomic hydroelectric projects championed by provincial monopolies with dreams of empire.
The reports on Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask dam and B.C. Hydro’s Site C generating station were eerily similar in how they enumerated the factors that led to massive cost overruns on both projects, beginning with complacent politicians and a lack of independent oversight at the government-owned utilities that had promoted them. The reports also read much like the findings of an earlier inquiry into the financially ruinous Muskrat Falls project in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In all three cases, provincial premiers allowed their better judgment to be clouded by a desire to build personal legacies in the form of gigantic dams that they perhaps hoped might one day be named after them. They allowed the heads of their respective Crown-owned electrical monopolies to indulge their own empire-building instincts to pursue those projects based on rosy assumptions concocted to dazzle unsuspecting taxpayers and avoid scrutiny.
Politicians of all stripes fell into this trap. In Manitoba, it was former New Democratic premier Gary Doer’s government that authorized construction of Keeyask dam and Bipole III transmission line, the costs of which have ballooned to $13.4-billion from an initial estimate of $9.7-billion, and led to a tripling of Manitoba Hydro’s debt in 15 years.
In 2008, Mr. Doer declared that “hydroelectricity is Manitoba’s oil,” suggesting his have-not province might get rich by exporting power to midwestern U.S. states hungry for clean energy. This was always a pipe dream, since continental electricity prices were already then beginning a steep descent because of a glut of cheap natural gas and the increasing attractiveness of alternative sources of renewable power. The oil-electricity analogy was also highly misleading. In 2019, for instance, Canada exported $87-billion worth of crude oil. Electricity exports totalled a mere $2.5-billion, mostly from Quebec.
As last week’s report from an independent review of Keeyask and Bipole III, led by former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, concluded: “The incomplete analysis of the projects, driven by government endorsement, a construction contract that deferred construction risk to Manitoba Hydro, and a lack of effective project oversight at the corporate level, led to project delays and significant cost overruns.”
As a former right-leaning premier of an oil-producing province, Mr. Wall may not have been the best choice to lead the review commissioned by Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister. But his exhaustive report, which runs more than 14,000 pages with appendices, should put to rest charges by Mr. Doer and others that this was just a partisan exercise.
In B.C., former provincial deputy finance minister Peter Milburn’s report on the Site C fiasco found a similar story of politicians rushing to sign off on a megaproject without due diligence. In this case, it was former Liberal premier Christy Clark’s government that gave the go-ahead to Site C in 2014, forgoing a prior independent review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.
Premier John Horgan’s New Democrats, which had opposed Site C in opposition, put in place a “project assurance board,” or PAB, that was supposed to keep tabs on B.C. Hydro. It also hired consultants Ernst & Young to provide an additional layer of oversight. But the PAB, Mr. Milburn found, was stacked with B.C. Hydro board members, while E&Y appears to have been systematically kept out of the loop by officials at the provincially owned utility.
“Ultimately, B.C. Hydro determined the amount and type of oversight they would receive from EY,” Mr. Milburn wrote. “This appears inconsistent with the concept of independent review and with B.C. Hydro’s commitment to government.”
Astonishingly, Mr. Horgan has chosen to make only cosmetic changes at B.C. Hydro in the wake of Mr. Milburn’s report and a jaw-dropping revision to Site C’s budget. The project is now slated to cost $16-billion, or almost twice the $8.7-billion it was estimated to cost in 2014, with no guarantee that further problems won’t still arise as B.C. Hydro seeks to reinforce Site C’s shaky – literally – foundations.
Mr. Doer and Ms. Clark may have thought they were following in the footsteps of the visionary premiers of the past – Manitoba’s Duff Roblin and B.C.’s W.A.C. Bennett – by developing their provinces’ hydroelectric potential. But those earlier mid-20th-century projects were pioneering feats that paid off because of the unbeatable natural attributes. Keeyask, Site C and Muskrat Falls were subpar in comparison.
That all three projects were allowed to proceed speaks to the rot within Canada’s Crown-owned electrical utilities. It is beyond high time someone cleaned house.

Gary Mason: Site C is a disaster in the making

20 October 2020

Of the many issues awaiting the next government of British Columbia, none is more vexing and politically fraught than the Site C dam project.

On its present course, it has the potential to be the greatest financial disaster in the province’s history. And all indications are it will be John Horgan and the New Democratic Party who will have to make some enormous, financially consequential decisions related to the problem-plagued undertaking.

Before calling the current election, which concludes Saturday, Mr. Horgan ordered an investigation into the current trajectory of the project and the consequences that its myriad challenges are expected to have on final costs and timeline.

That report is expected in the next few weeks. It will almost certainly contain bad news. The question is whether it will be bad enough to cause the government to consider cancelling it, despite the billions that have already been invested – and the billions more yet that it would cost to halt it in its tracks.

Mr. Horgan had, until recently, steadfastly rejected any notion of killing the project and taking the losses. However, pressed on the campaign trail by Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, he opened the door to that possibility.

In referencing the report that is coming, Mr. Horgan said, “We’ll take a good hard look at the evidence, and if the science tells us and the economics tells us it’s the wrong way to proceed, we’ll take appropriate action.”

While that statement may have buoyed the hearts of thousands opposed to the dam, cancelling it at this juncture seems unimaginable. On the other hand, the thought of a cataclysmic failure of the dam’s wall down the road – not to mention the small army of engineers from BC Hydro that is already working, right now, to triage the dam – must keep Mr. Horgan up at night.

The problem is the soft sedimentary shale that underlies the construction site. Harvey Elwin, one of the country’s most experienced dam engineers, has observed that he’s never seen such appalling foundation conditions for a project of this scale. Documents recently obtained by Ben Parfitt of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) have revealed that a decision to pour massive amounts of concrete to build a buttress before a critical water-drainage tunnel was completed “could cause the notoriously unstable shale rock to move even further.” Several prominent British Columbians and the former chief executive officer of BC Hydro, Marc Eliesen, have called for the project to be stopped until an independent team of professionals can assess the situation.

BC Hydro has been less than upfront (to put it mildly) about the problems the project is experiencing. The whole thing has the feel of an issue that is growing in ugly complexity every day, the ramifications of which are enormous for the provincial treasury.

Site C started out as a concept that would cost $3.5-billion. When plans became more serious, the price tag was changed to $6.9-billion. By the time the BC Liberals approved it in 2014, the estimate rose to $8.8-billion. When the NDP took over in 2017, it ordered a project review by the B.C. Utilities Commission, but by that point, almost $2-billion had already been spent. It was determined that if the project was cancelled at that point, it would cost another $2-billion – a $4-billion writeoff.

So the NDP decided to push on with the dam, at a revised estimate of $10.7-billion.

No one believes that will be the final tally – not by a long shot. Comparisons to Newfoundland and Labrador’s infamous Muskrat Falls dam fiasco suddenly seem not so far-fetched.

As is always the case in these matters, it will be future generations that will bear the brunt of the pain. In the case of Site C, hydro rates are going to have to rise precipitously in order to pay the bill.

And then there is the indelicate question of demand. By the time the dam is scheduled to be completed in 2025, there is expected to be little need for the power it produces. Demand will be there down the road, but it can be reasonably asked if that power could have been supplied far more cheaply, with less damage to the environment, via independent producers and alternative forms of energy such as solar or wind.

There is no question that the BC Liberals deserve enormous blame for this debacle, pushing the project to the point where most believe there was no turning back. But it’s the NDP’s problem now – and they are likely to wear this, no matter what happens.

Thanks for reading! PLEASE sign the petition to halt Site C!