One day after her government pushed spending on the Site C dam past the $4 billion mark, Premier Christy Clark said she isn't concerned about the project being derailed by either Ottawa or the courts.
In an interview with the Alaska Highway News, Clark said she believed the dam was already past the "point of no return" she vowed to reach earlier this year.
"I would say from the day we made the decision, the decision was done," said Clark. "It's a significant investment in jobs for the province. I don't think there are many British Columbians who would say we should return."
On Wednesday, the government awarded a $470 million contract for generating turbines on the dam—putting the BC Hydro's contract commitments at around $4 billion. Observers say that makes it increasingly unlikely a future government will cancel Site C—a door left open by BC NDP Leader John Horgan when asked about the project late last year.
Still, the dam faces opposition in the courts, as well as from protesters who have spent weeks occupying a camp outside BC Hydro's Vancouver office.
There is also a looming question mark with regards to the federal government.
Last month, video emerged of federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould criticizing Site C at the 2012 Paddle for the Peace rally. Wilson-Raybould, then a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said Site C would run "roughshod" over existing treaties, saying "the legal reality is Aboriginal people have treaty rights that must be respected." As Justice Minister, Wilson-Raybould continues to have sway over the project, but has shown no sign of intervening.
Site C currently faces four legal challenges from the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations, making the file a sticky one for a government that promises a "new relationship" between Canada and its Aboriginal peoples.
Asked about Wilson-Raybould's comments, Clark said she had "no concerns in that regard."
"I know that the Justice Minister, she understands how important it is she be unbiased, in that job of all the jobs in the federal cabinet," Clark told the Alaska Highway News. "I have no doubt that she's going to be completely unbiased in making sure she fulfills her duties. I'm not worried about that at all."
'We could potentially electrify the oilsands'
Clark said her government remains open to selling power outside of B.C. if local demand continues to be flat when Site C comes online in 2024.
Recently, the provincial government suggested selling Site C power to Alberta—a province eager to make the switch from coal-fired power plants. The suggestion that was initially rebuffed over B.C.'s stance on heavy oil pipelines, but Clark said talks continue between the provinces.
"We could potentially electrify the oilsands, which would make the oilsands the cleanest oil produced anywhere on the globe," Clark said. "If Canada wants to make an argument for our resources to find their way to market, let's make them the cleanest in the world and let's make that our brand."
"Site C could be a key part of establishing Canada's brand around the world for both oil and gas as the cleanest produced anywhere on the globe," she said.
Contract timing reveals 'agenda,' critics say
BC Hydro's turbine contract announcement came one day after hearings wrapped up in the Peace Valley Land Owner Association's (PVLA) case against the dam in the BC Court of Appeal.
PVLA President Ken Boon said the government's timing on contract announcements shows an "agenda" aimed at showing the dam is beyond stopping.
He said he's still confident Site C could be derailed in the courts.
As for the turbines, "hopefully they didn't pay for them in advance," Boon said.
Listen to the full interview here.
(BC Hydro CEO) Jessica McDonald said yesterday that at this point, something on the order of $4 billion in Site C contracts have gone out. Is the dam past the point of no return, as you said earlier?
I would say from the day we made the decision, the decision was done. It's a significant investment in jobs for the province. I don't think there are many British Columbians who would say we should return. I think most people would tell you this is a really important project for our kids, and we should make sure we get it done.
There seems to be the implication in that, that there is a worry that it might not be past the point it could be tripped up, either by the courts or the federal government. Is that still a concern for you at all, that the carpet might be pulled out from under this thing?
Obviously we are working hard to make sure that we are successful in the courts when people are opposing it and making sure the federal government supports it. But the thing is, BC Hydro has done a really good job over the past decade making sure we've done all that we need to do, that we're required to do, and that we should do to make sure communities are being included, that First Nations are being supported and employed, to meet all the legal tests.
But I think we've done more than meet the legal tests. I think we've gone farther and made sure that we're meeting a bigger social obligation that we, especially when it comes to First Nations.
I know there's been some talk lately about the federal Justice Minister may be biting her tongue on her past opinions on Site C. What sort of discussions have you had with the Trudeau government on Site C?
I have no concerns in that regard. I know that the Justice Minister, she understands how important it is she be unbiased, in that job of all the jobs in the federal cabinet. I have no doubt that she's going to be completely unbiased in making sure she fulfills her duties. I'm not worried about that at all.
Among opponents of the dam, there is this belief that the government should wait for the courts to move this project forward. What do you say to that interpretation of how the system works?
I would say this has been in the process for a decade. At some point, we needed to decide we were going to move on. After a decade of analysis and consultation and accommodation and all of those other things that happen, we had to make a decision.
My view of government is if you wait until everybody agrees with everything, you'll never get anything done. We are a government that believes we get the responsible development of our resources in British Columbia, that we get to "yes." There's a process to get there, we follow the process, we want to do it responsibly and fairly, but ultimately, that means we get to an answer. Not keep waiting, and waiting, and waiting until 100 per cent of the people agree on 100 per cent of the things. That just doesn't happen in today's society, or yesterday's society.
There was some talk earlier this year about transmitting power to Alberta, as they want to get off a lot of their fossil fuel sources. Is that a possibility that's still on the table, and why is that being considered?
You bet. We are currently talking to Alberta about the potential for that. Those discussions are underway now. I don't know they'll end up. But from a Canadian perspective, this could be a vital part of making sure we meet our greenhouse gas emissions targets and the commitments our Prime Minister made while he was in Paris.
If Alberta was able to go from coal-fired generation, which isn't clean, to hydro power generation in on full swoop, we could save three to six million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada every year. We could potentially electrify the oilsands, which would make the oilsands the cleanest oil produced anywhere on the globe. If Canada wants to make an argument for our resources to find their way to market, let's make them the cleanest in the world and let's make that our brand. Site C could be a key part of establishing Canada's brand around the world for both oil and gas as the cleanest produced anywhere on the globe.
It's usually said Site C is needed to meet demand within the province, and now obviously that demand has gone slack a little bit. Are the forecasts still accurate as far as you're concerned, or is this trying to find demand for Site C?
No, I think...we want to have as many customers for BC Hydro product as we can.
When we export product, it allows us to lower rates for people who live here. Hydro is the best form of power to produce, because you can save it or you can use it, depending on when the market is the strongest for export. I think about this in a couple ways. One: demand in ten years is going to be much bigger than it is today, so we need to really think about these demand forecasts in the long term. B.C. created 50,000 jobs in the last year, we're going to grow at three per cent according to the experts. If we're going to grow like that, we're going to need more power. Why shouldn't we make a contribution to cleaning up the country's air by exporting the cleanest power in the world to displace some of the dirtiest power in the world right next door in Alberta? That in itself is a good reason to support Site C.
There's quite a bit of angst over local hires on Site C. What would you say to people in Fort St. John who are seeing jobs going to people who aren't from B.C.?
Making sure British Columbians are first in line for those jobs is our number one priority. That's why BC Hydro is tracking...it's an unusual work site because BC Hydro is tracking where the workers come from. That's how concerned we are about it. Go to work sites across the province and you won't find many that are doing that.
What they found is that month by month, it goes up and down but some months its been higher that 80 per cent. I agree with people in Fort St. John who want to make sure British Columbians are first in line for these jobs, we're doing everything we can to make sure that's how we hire people. One of the other things that is happening though is people from Alberta are coming home.
A lot of those people used to be British Columbians and they had to flee because there weren't enough jobs in our province. Now they're coming home. We do want to make sure those jobs go to British Columbians, and we want to make sure that when British Columbians are coming home to stay and pay taxes and raise their families, that they're also going to be able to find jobs when they get here.
February was the first time in history that B.C. brought in no money from an oil and gas auction, and if you look in the provincial budget you're seeing a downward trend in oil and gas revenues. How big a concern is that for you?
It's the central concern that's driving my, our government's plan to export LNG.
Natural gas is worth next to nothing in the North American market. It's been discovered in shale, shale fracking has meant jurisdictions all over the continent are finding it is abundance.
The only way we will get value for this incredible resource that is locked under the ground in the northeast is if we export it to Asia. It's a huge concern, and that's why we have to make sure that LNG happens. That's why we have to make sure this federal approval happens, for Pacific NorthWest to get off the ground, it's why we have to make sure we do everything that we can to support these projects going ahead despite the really soft market for gas. If we can't get that gas onto boats and over to Asia, nobody's going to bother getting it out of the ground in the northeast, and that's going to be really tough for people's families. It's going to have a huge impact on jobs and unemployment.
This latest budget had some of the lowest oil and gas and resource revenues in some time. The fact you're able to balance budgets without these revenues, what does that say about that traditional relationship in B.C.—that we extract these things to pay for social services, schools, health care. Is that still true in B.C.?
Yes. But what it says is we have a very diverse economy. We're not dependent on a single resource. If we were dependent on gas revenues to the exclusion of everything else, we'd be in a situation where Alberta is today—a province that's been almost exclusively dependent on oil revenues, price goes down, they're really struggling. The reason we're different is because we have a huge tech sector, we have a huge forestry sector, the commodities sector for mining has been bad but they're still going, agriculture, and then of course all the other service sector we have in the province—our trade relationships are strong.
What we've done over the years is diversify this economy, and its meant that when gas revenues find themselves down in the tank, we can still manage to balance our budget, run a surplus, pay for the best health care in the country, because we've got other parts of the economy that are still trucking along.
The federal government extended the review period for Pacific NorthWest LNG. How anxious are you about the outcome of that process?
I'm anxious about it. I'm following it really closely. We want to see this get through the process successfully. Under the previous government, it had been in process for 1,000 days. In my view, that's just too long to take to get an approval. So this government has given it more attention. They've been very focused on getting it through. But we need to make sure we get this through.
Just to put this in context, the number of jobs that will be created by this one private sector investment will be greater than the number of jobs created by the entire federal government's stimulus spending plan. Imagine that, and that's all across the country, these will be jobs just in B.C. That's how important it is for creating jobs. It's the single-largest private sector investment in Canadian history. We've got to find a way to make this happen. Every first nation from well head to liquefaction plant is now a part of it and supporting it. There's no reason for this not to happen.
Is the regulatory process, in your mind, the only thing standing in the way of a positive final investment decision? Or do you think there's still a possibility given the current market (that the company will walk away)?
I think the longer this takes to get out of the process, the less likely it is we'll get a positive final investment decision that's positive. That's always been my concern. Every day, the market changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But in these market conditions, we need to close these deals. We need to demonstrate to the world that you can get business done in a timely way in Canada. I appreciate that this federal government has sped up, has really given this a lot more focus, but this has been mired in the bureaucracy for way too long.
Do you have any idea when you'll have a final decision from the federal government on this? Do you have a date?
They said within 90 days. I hope it will be sooner than that. I hope it will find its way to the cabinet table in the next little while, maybe even within the next month would be great.