Globe and Mail: B.C. needs a public inquiry to sort out the Site C mess

31 December 2020

By Konrad Yakabuski, Globe and Mail, December 31, 2o20.
Article is paywalled so full text is here.

The evidence is now indisputable that British Columbia’s Liberal government erred in 2014 in approving construction of the Site C hydroelectric dam on the Peace River, and that the province’s current NDP administration should not have allowed the project to proceed in 2017.

The question now facing Premier John Horgan is whether, more than five years into construction and with about $6-billion spent on the 1,100-megawatt hydro generating station, his government can pull the plug on the project without causing more problems than it solves.

Either way, it is a bad situation that calls for a public inquiry into how Site C got this far in the first place. The pattern of a provincial hydroelectricity monopoly influencing gullible politicians to back its anti-competitive ambitions regardless of the costs is a familiar one in Canada. In its desire to block potential renewable energy interlopers on its turf, BC Hydro appears to have provided its political overlords with a less than fulsome explanation of the downsides of Site C.

This is not to say Mr. Horgan and former Liberal premiers Christy Clark and Gordon Campbell do not bear blame for what is becoming a financial fiasco. Independent energy experts warned them against building Site C, arguing that BC Hydro had used questionable assumptions about future demand and the cost of alternatives to make the economic case for Site C.

The risk that Site C would become a financial sinkhole was not even the biggest strike against the project. It had been common knowledge that Site C was a suboptimal location for a big hydroelectric project. There was a reason for that. The best sites in B.C., and indeed across Canada, had all been developed by the 1970s. Since then, provincial hydroelectric utilities had been pushing increasingly marginal developments to satisfy their thirst for empire building.

The extent of the problems now facing Site C and the likely cost of fixing them have been the subject of a review commissioned by Mr. Horgan after BC Hydro’s July disclosure that “foundation enhancements would be required to increase the stability below the powerhouse, spillway and future dam core areas.” In other words, the worst-case scenario that geological experts had warned about from the outset had, in fact, materialized. Quelle surprise?

In October, The Narwhal published the results of a months-long investigation based on Site C documents, obtained under a Freedom of Information request. The report noted that the technical advisory board overseeing Site C warned in May, 2019, that the stability of the dam is “a significant risk and the hazards of the weak foundation have been adequately recognized.”

Mr. Horgan has insisted that he was not aware of the geotechnical issues facing Site C until BC Hydro disclosed them publicly in July, more than 14 months after the technical advisory board had shared its conclusions. It remains unclear who knew and when about Site C’s problems along the chain of command within government leading to Mr. Horgan’s office.

“We put in place significant oversight on this project and it hasn’t proven to be adequate at this point,” Mr. Horgan this month told Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer.

Frankly, that is not good enough. Only a public inquiry, similar to the one Newfoundland and Labrador conducted to get to the bottom of the Muskrat Falls boondoggle, can identify those responsible for allowing a misguided project to continue unchecked. The original $8-billion cost of Site C was revised to $10.7-billion in 2017. But foundation reinforcements alone could boost the construction price tag by another $2-billion. More cost overruns seem inevitable.

Mr. Horgan punted a decision on Site C’s fate until after last October’s provincial election by appointing Peter Milburn, a former deputy minister of finance under Ms. Clark, to recommend whether the project should be halted. Few observers are betting on Mr. Horgan to pull the plug on Site C, however. Organized labour, a major force within the NDP, has been a big supporter of the project and the construction jobs it has brought.

There are still a few optimists who believe the economic case for Site C could be salvaged if B.C. could sell power from the project to Alberta, enabling the latter province to decarbonize its electricity grid. Interprovincial electricity co-operation is, however, one of those uniquely Canadian ideas that never materializes. Besides, private electricity producers in Alberta have invested billions in natural gas-fired generating capacity that can keep the lights on at a far lower cost than power from Site C, even if the gap will shrink gradually as carbon taxes rise.

It will take a public inquiry to expose the folly that led B.C. to this very bad place.