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Oh, dam. Liberals would rather not talk about Site C right now

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    Oh, dam. Liberals would rather not talk about Site C right now Vaughn Palmer Vancouver Sun Wednesday, December 07, 2005
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 7, 2005
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      Oh, dam. Liberals would rather not talk about Site C right now

      Vaughn Palmer
      Vancouver Sun

      Wednesday, December 07, 2005

      VICTORIA - The news advisory from BC Hydro highlighted what was likely to be a headline-making briefing later in the week.

      "Media are invited to join BC Hydro president and CEO Bob Elton and members of B.C.'s business community as they reveal BC Hydro's path to energy self-sufficiency for the next 20 years," Tuesday's release said.

      Oh, and one other thing: "Plans will also outline the future of the highly debated Site C dam in Northern B.C."

      And soon to be debated a lot more, if Hydro has its way.

      The giant electrical utility is preparing to reintroduce a new generation of British Columbians to the decades-old controversy over a third hydroelectric dam on the already twice-dammed Peace River.

      The possibility figured prominently in public consultations organized by Hydro earlier this year. Elton, the Hydro CEO, left little doubt that was a prelude to a more formal stage of debate.

      "What we've done so far on Site C is say, ' look on the face of it, it looks very interesting,' " he told me during an interview earlier this fall on Voice of B.C. on Shaw TV.

      "The next phase involves dusting off the engineering studies, doing new environmental work and doing a massive stakeholder consultation and first nations consultation, both in the Peace and around the province," Elton said.

      First nations are the key. They barely figured in earlier damming-and-flooding debates. Today, government couldn't contemplate a project of this size without accommodating any native band whose interests would be infringed.

      "It would probably be a year or a year and a half of very intensive consultation," Elton figures. "It will be the most scrutinized project you can imagine, which is appropriate for something that would cost a few billion dollars."

      Hydro's planning does not extend to a more precise estimate at this stage.

      "The studies that were done on Site C were done 20 years ago. There have been a few increases in construction costs since then," he explained.

      "We will be coming up with some more revised figures in the next couple of months, but frankly until we do that dust-off of the engineering studies, we're not going to say there's a really reliable figure."

      He expects public support for the project. "Most British Columbians really like the Hydro facilities that we have," said Elton. "They're clean; there's no pollution. People are proud of having them."

      He also expects strong opposition. "Building a new dam is something that is tough in a place like B.C.

      "Like any project you try to build, the people that were opposed to it would become determinedly opposed."

      Even as Elton prepared to move the debate to the next phase, he cautioned that the final call on Site C was not his or Hydro's to make.

      "Remember that this project is a project that -- if it is to be built -- would be a B.C. cabinet decision. Our job is to present it as an option. They would make the decision."

      And it would, as he conceded, involve a considerable mustering of the political will, spanning not one but several terms of government.

      "It [the project] is a 10- to 12-year cycle, including permitting and about seven years of construction," Elton explained. "It would need a significant commitment, including political commitment for quite a period of time."

      Which level of commitment has the B.C. Liberals more than a little anxious.

      They don't dispute the merit of many of the arguments in favour of building Site C sooner or later.

      Hydro is already a net importer of power and this is a growing province.

      Conservation, small-scale projects, wind power and the rest won't supply all of B.C.'s needs for the next two decades.

      Hydroelectric dams are cleaner, cheaper and more flexible than most other sources of power. Site C, involving relatively little flooding on a river with two larger dams upstream, is probably the last of its kind.

      But the Liberals don't think Hydro has begun to make the case with the public.

      Some Liberals wonder if the government-owned utility has the credibility to make the case.

      They cite the recent debacle where the company spent several years trying to persuade people of the need for a gas-fired generation plant at Duke Point on Vancouver Island.

      Then, as the project was in the final stages of approval, Hydro up and cancelled it, writing off $120 million in developmental costs.

      The last thing the Liberals want is for Hydro to pitch Site C into B.C.'s highly charged political arena, when the public is scarcely aware of the need for the project.

      That's why as the day ended Tuesday, the Liberals were hoping to persuade Hydro to say as little as possible about Site C this week, and concentrate on preparing the ground for a future announcement.


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