Does B.C. really need the Site C dam?

NDP government sends Site C for review
WATCH: NDP government sends Site C for review

The $8.8-billion Site C mega dam is one of the most controversial projects proposed for British Columbia, facing strong opposition from First Nations and environmental groups, who say it isn’t needed.

But proponents say it will be necessary both to power B.C.’s future and to meet climate change commitments.

The BC Utilities Commission will produce a report on the project by Nov. 1.

On Thursday, CKNW’s Jon McComb held a debate to hash out both sides.

LISTEN: The debate over the Site C dam

Arguing against the project was Harry Swain, former chair of the federal-provincial Joint Review Panel tasked with reviewing the Site C dam, and now a stringent critic.

Story continues below advertisement

Arguing for the project was Blair King, a Langley-based environmental scientist who has written to the BC Utilities Commission.

The case for

From King’s perspective, Site C must be built if B.C. is ever to be serious about its climate change commitments.

“What that means is reducing the number of fossil fuels we rely on and moving from fossil fuels to electricity. At which point, the energy that would be derived from fossil fuels like natural gas, diesel and gasoline comes from electricity. And that drives up demand.”

READ MORE: BC NDP refers $8.8B Site C dam project to BC Utilities Commission

Blair argued that under the Paris Agreement, Canada has pledged to look at clean power as a means of reducing its carbon emissions with targets as early as 2030, which he suggested would mean shifting up to 50 per cent of B.C.’s power generation to electricity.

WATCH: Delaying Site C dam in B.C. could cost $600M, says Clark

Delaying Site C dam in B.C. could cost $600M: Clark
Delaying Site C dam in B.C. could cost $600M: Clark

He added that B.C. isn’t doing this alone. Washington State has committed to eliminating coal power, as has Alberta, he said. And California has committed to powering down its Diablo nuclear power facility by 2024.

“When they shut down Diablo, that’s the equivalent to shutting down the Maritimes,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

“They are moving from base-load dispatchable power to renewable power and in doing so they will create a massive demand.”

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about the Site C dam

Blair said critics like Swain have argued the project isn’t financially viable based on faulty calculations of the price of hydro power sold at spot prices, which he said assumes a world where coal and natural gas are in high use and both plentiful and cheap.

“To pretend it’s not happening is to put our heads in the sand.”

The case against

“I think it’s the most serious thing facing the world,” Swain said of climate change.

But it’s not enough to get him to buy into Site C, which he said only makes sense if political leaders all get on board with King’s vision of the future — something he’s not particularly hopeful about.

READ MORE: John Horgan urges BC Hydro not to finalize Site C deals

Swain argued B.C. Hydro has consistently overestimated power demand for three decades and that its power sale projections for Site C are equally suspect.

“The problem is that BC Hydro couldn’t forecast its way through a wet Kleenex.”

He added he doesn’t see any conditions under which there will be a market for the power the dam would generate within the next 20 years.

Story continues below advertisement

WATCH: UBC study calls for suspension or cancellation of Site C dam

UBC study calls for suspension or cancellation of Site C dam
UBC study calls for suspension or cancellation of Site C dam
“[The debate over] Site C is whether we need this thing now, whether we can afford it, whether we can afford the difficulties on the environmental and First Nations’ side. That’s the decision facing the government this fall.”

READ MORE: Supreme Court dismisses two Site C lawsuits from B.C. First Nations

Regarding Blair’s argument that fighting climate change will build a growing market for renewable B.C. power, Swain said that would require a long-term deal with the U.S., one signed off on by both American federal regulators and local authorities.

“Then you might have something. But until then, it’s just blowing smoke.”

“This makes a lot of sense but it does so in the context of some large agreement and commitment to a multi, multi-hundred-billion dollar transformation of not just North America, but the world economy. We’re a long way from there, and asking B.C. taxpayers to pony up $10 billion as a bet that one of these days these commercial arrangements will eventuate is just nonsense.”