Rob Shaw: Plagued by problems, Site C has become a major issue for John Horgan, and the Greens are only too happy to drive the wedge.
The B.C. Greens are holding a town hall this week on a file that has turned into a political nightmare for the NDP government.
The invite reads “Site C: What is the NDP hiding?”
“We know the project has massive engineering and safety problems and an out-of-control budget… but John Horgan’s government has kept reports secret and refused to admit what it’s known for years.
“BC Hydro customers are on the hook for this mess – more than $10 billion. We deserve answers.”
The problem-plagued megadam has been a persistent thorn in the side for Horgan ever since he took office in 2017 and chose to continue construction. That decision infuriated environmentalists, alienated First Nations in B.C.’s northeast, and caused no shortage of internal scuffles within his own party by MLAs who’d campaigned fiercely on the promise to kill the dam dead.
The Greens have leaned hard into the issue, because it siphons away New Democrat environmental supporters.
This week’s town hall is the latest attempt to whip up public pressure in advance of a second decision by Horgan on whether to cancel the megaproject, expected any day now.
Site C was a no-win issue for the NDP back in 2017, and it’s doubly so now.
Stability issues, cracks and foundational woes are plaguing the giant earth fill dam, located near Fort St. John. They appear serious, though the extent, cost and potential fix remain secret, embedded in a report by special advisor and former deputy minister of finance Peter Milburn, which Horgan hired last year to get to the bottom of the problems.
Cabinet has seen Milburn’s report. It’s such bad news, Horgan commissioned two additional reports, saying that Milburn “did not have the capacity to address the safety challenges” and the “efficacy of the fix” proposed by B.C. Hydro.
“Milburn worked with the information that was available to him – the fix that’s been proposed by Hydro,” Horgan said in January.
“This is not to say that Milburn’s report is not comprehensive… But it is also appropriate that we make sure that the fix that is being proposed to the geotechnical challenge is going to be safe. And out of an abundance of caution, we’re asking for a second and third opinion on that.”
Green leader Sonia Furstenau has been claiming for months that Horgan picked the wrong reviewer to look at the wrong items, far too late. She was right.
Site C has always been a mind-boggling project in its enormity. The largest public infrastructure project in B.C.’s history. Earth movers the size of houses. Two turbines, each the width of a double-decker bus. The entire Peace River diverted into two tunnels. The scope is awe-inspiring.
So is the amount of money involved. The previous BC Liberal government budgeted Site C at $8.7 billion. The NDP upped that to $10.7 billion in 2017. The current cost (again, secret) is being “rebalanced” by BC Hydro as problems continue to mount and the Crown power agency burns through $100 million a month on construction. It’s definitely more than $10.7 billion.
Horgan’s argument in 2017 was it would cost $4 billion to pull the plug, and that was too steep a price to pay. “We just couldn’t see spending $4 billion for nothing,” he said then.
Better to finish the project started by previous premier Christy Clark, even if it left some New Democrats unhappy, he wagered.
Besides, the clean energy to be generated by Site C would help power the NDP’s ambitious plan to fight climate change, transition companies off fossil fuels and move to mandatory all-electric vehicle sales by 2040. Then there were the more than 5,000 jobs created during construction, showing the NDP’s blue collar unionized side that there’s still life in the natural resource sector under a New Democrat government.
Some of those arguments still stand up, but the math is changing fast.
Dump billions more into Site C to fix whatever problems exist (if they can be fixed), while continuing to fend off legal challenges from First Nations opposed to the project who view government’s forcible construction as a violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) the NDP signed into law with much fanfare in 2019.
Or, cancel a project now more than halfway built, with almost $6 billion spent, and face a total bill that could easily exceed $8 billion – for effectively nothing.
There are no good options left for the government on Site C.
Which is why this isn’t the last town hall you will see from the B.C. Greens on the issue.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
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- Before the leadership contest that elected Sonia Furstenau, outgoing Green leader Andrew Weaver said the party was at a major crossroads.