Weaver should support Site C—for the indigenous and non-indigenous in B.C.

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, July 6, 2017
Weaver should support Site C—for the indigenous and non-indigenous in B.C.

You would think, given the desire for “green” energy, that a “green” political party leader would support the development of more hydro power for Vancouver. Or for that matter, for export to the United States, or to Alberta, which would allow Alberta to reduce emissions in its province by using clean reliable hydro power.

You would think then, that the Site C dam, a hydroelectric project already under development, and previously supported by B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver (pictured above, left), would be a slam dunk.

You would think wrong. Weaver has apparently had an epiphany about the dam and now finds it economically unattractive (citing lower costs for wind and solar power), and potentially an infringement of First Nations rights. On the first point, Weaver is both comparing apples with oranges and still missing the point.

Wind and solar power are intermittent sources that literally blow or shine at the whims of nature. That intermittency means you must have 100 per cent peak consumption capability, meaning that you must have full backup power to displace renewable output when it slumps.

Second, there’s the cost issue. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the 2016 “levelized” cost of hydro power was US$64 per Megawatt-hours (MWh), a common billing unit for energy, for projects coming online in 2022. When you remove the tax credits given to wind and solar power, you find that solar photovoltaic is projected to cost $73.60 per MWh, and onshore wind costs $56 per MWh, comparable to natural gas. But again, this is deceiving—you can’t just swap out gas or hydro for renewables because you must maintain 100 per cent redundant power capacity for renewables, in a way you don’t have to for hydro or natural gas.

On the First Nations front, Weaver said a major reason for his change of mind was the indigenous rights the project will threaten. Of note are sacred cultural sites for the nearby Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations. The construction of Site C involves a highway realignment through a 4,000 to 5,000-year-old indigenous gravesite and sweat lodge. Of course, the route should be changed to avoid these cultural sites, if possible. At a minimum, the B.C. government should compensate the indigenous communities and pay for a respectful grave relocation.

However, indigenous communities are not the only affected. Nearby landowners also face expropriation for the construction. But power dams are clearly legitimate public purposes that justify expropriation. And even indigenous opponents of the project admit there have been thousands of hours of consultation meetings with First Nations and other affected parties. Five First Nations have already signed impact benefits agreements and one is in negotiation. Two First Nations are still firmly against the project and have taken the government to court to stop the project and have failed each time. The First Nations also lost a Federal Court challenge and on June 29, the Supreme Court declined to hear two appeals that sought to delay Site C project.

Of course, treaty and aboriginal rights are extremely important, but like any Charter right, they are not absolute. They must be balanced against other rights and competing critical interests. To many, including Canadian courts, the Site C consultation was meaningful and extensive. Both the B.C. government and BC Hydro met and discussed the project, its impact, and how to mitigate any impacts to treaty rights or any damage to the environment. Compensation, land transfers and job opportunities were always on the table.

The Fraser Institute has documented how positive partnerships with First Nations on resource development helps make provinces more attractive to investment, which benefits everyone—indigenous and non-indigenous—involved. In the case of mining, for example, the Fraser Institute showed how 45 mining partnerships between First Nations and resource companies in Saskatchewan helped turn that province into a mining investment magnet.

So rather than stand in the way of Site C, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver should stand alongside both electricity users (basically anyone who pays a power bill in B.C.) and the indigenous communities that have already signed agreements with the government. And he should work hard to convince his caucus and the government, despite whatever party’s in power, to keep energy affordable in British Columbia and to make First Nations full partners in energy development.