Original version published in 24 hours on April 22nd
Recently the government announced the go ahead for the Site C dam on the Peace River. This is the first new major dam in North America in a generation, large scale dam building is something from the time when cars had fins and TV was black and white..
Site C is put forward as the great answer for power self sufficiency in BC. Certainly 4600 GWh per year is good, enough to provide power to over 400,000 houses. But there are downsides, the biggest of which is the flooding of close to 14000 acres of land along the Peace River. How big is that? Imagine 14 Stanley Parks. Site C also means the citizens of BC will be on the hook for at least $6.6 billion in new BC Hydro debt.
Site C is not the only option we have in BC, there are better private sector answers available. How does Site C compare to a private green energy project?
The Plutonic Power Bute Inlet project will produce 2900 GWh per year, about 2/3s the capacity of the Site C. This project will directly impact less than 50 acres of land, which is good because more flooded land means more CO2 from a reservoir. The roads needed are already there because of logging, though they will need new transmission lines. The Plutonic project will cost $3.5 billion and citizens will not be on the hook for a penny of it.
Site C is not the best option for BC, but will it even manage to go forward?
The first hurdle is the environmental assessment. This process is rigorous and demands a lot from proponents but is is a process misunderstood by the public. Of the roughly 200 projects that have entered the EA process it is true only one was refused a certification, but that does not mean every other project was approved. The reality is that proponents either withdraw from the process or stop if the environmental requirements become too expensive. About 40% of projects that enter the EA process do not get approval. The process is certainly not a rubber stamp.
The EA process assesses environmental impacts and then sets goals to mitigate the impact of the project. The Achilles heel of the Site C dam is the loss of close to 14,000 acres of land in the Peace River area, of which 8000 is some of the best farmland in BC. How do you mitigate that damage? What action can BC Hydro take to remove this one huge impact on the environment? The loss of this land would be the biggest loss of agricultural land since 2000. Would the Agricultural Land Commission North Panel even allow the land to be removed from the agricultural land reserve?
Even if through some improbable miracle Site C were to manage to get EA certification, I am not sure how any government would be able to weather the political storm that would come from North America wide opposition to building the dam. It will end up costings us hundred of millions to plan and consult about a dam that will never be built.. The time to stop this waste of money is now.