FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. - Officially, it is called the "Site C Clean Energy Project," but the scale and impact of a massive dam proposed by the province's Crown utility in northeastern British Columbia have raised questions about just how green and clean the development would be.
But the province's Clean Energy Act has limited the options available for expanding the provincial power grid, the chairman of the environmental review panel has pointed out as, one after another, opponents of the Site C proposal have questioned BC Hydro's choice to pursue the third dam on the Peace River.
"I understand the point that was made by an earlier intervener to the effect that you may have a lot of choices," chairman Harry Swain said at the hearings in Fort St. John. "But it seems to me that your choices have been substantially narrowed by public policy in the province, by the Clean Energy Act and so on."
BC Hydro's senior vice-president told the panel that the $7.9-billion Site C dam would have adverse effects on wildlife, fish and fish habitat, vegetation and First Nations land use but provide "clean, renewable" electricity to power the province for generations to come.
Susan Yurkovich said that like any large infrastructure project, there would be effects from the dam that could not be mitigated, but the corporation believes the benefits outweigh those effects.
"The decision to advance the project to this stage has not been made lightly," Yurkovich told the panel. "It has resulted from careful consideration of the future electricity needs of our customers, following many years of review and analysis."
But critics, including the Treaty 8 Nations and the Peace Valley Environment Association, have suggested geothermal, smaller-scale hydro and even gas-generated power are better, cheaper alternatives.
The David Suzuki Foundation will appear before the panel Wednesday to argue that a large-scale industrial development such as the dam is too much in addition to the intensive oil and gas, mining and logging activity in the Peace River region.
"We are concerned that Site C, if built, will further degrade this sensitive area of productive farmland and wildlife habitat," the group said.
The foundation, which supports hydroelectricity as a source of renewable energy, urged the province to abandon plans for Site C.
The dam would flood an 83-kilometre stretch of the Peace River valley from Fort St. John to Hudson's Hope, as well as 10 kilometres at the mouth of the Moberly River and 14 kilometres of the Halfway River, feeding into the Peace. The Crown utility estimated that 30 homes would be under water.
The province's Clean Energy Act requires B.C. to generate at least 93 per cent of all electricity from clean or renewable sources, but the Liberal government has not let the Clean Energy Act stand in the way of its plans in the past.
In June 2012, Premier Christy Clark declared "clean" the natural gas to be used to power the liquefied natural gas plants she foresees as a trillion-dollar industry for British Columbia. The designation will allow B.C. to pursue the LNG industry without violating the legislation.
"I don't see how you can consider it as clean or green when you consider the magnitude of the environmental impacts," said Andrea Morison, spokeswoman for the Peace Valley Environment Association.
She pointed to the loss of farmland and the greenhouse gas emissions from the dam, as well as the use of natural gas to liquefy B.C. gas for shipment to Asia as major environmental impacts.
"The government conveniently forgets that we're all living under one atmosphere," Morison said outside the panel hearings. "According to our provincial government it's OK to sell this energy resource but it's not OK to use it in British Columbia."
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