VICTORIA - British Columbia's growing economy will need plenty of power for both business and population growth, but provincial Energy Minister Bill Bennett says the Site C dam on the Peace River still is not a certainty.
Bennett said he will offer Premier Christy Clark and her cabinet next month a recommendation on whether to proceed with the almost $8-billion hydroelectric project, but that decision — expected to be made public by the end of the year — will be the subject of intense cabinet debate.
The minister has said that if the project were approved construction could start as early as this January, with a completion date of 2024.
The proposed dam near Fort St. John cleared major hurdles this week with the federal and British Columbia governments granting environmental approvals as long as more than 80 conditions are met before it proceeds.
"I'm going to take something to cabinet that's not going to be easy for my cabinet colleagues to decide," Bennett said. "I'm trying to make it as difficult as I can to make the decision because it shouldn't be an easy decision. It's a major decision for this government."
The Site C dam, which would flood agricultural land with the creation of an 83-kilometre-long reservoir, would produce 1,100 megawatts of capacity every year, enough to power about 450,000 homes.
Site C has been part of Crown-owned B.C. Hydro's energy vision for decades.
"We have not made a decision," Bennett said. "We are not leaning one way or the other. This is the most difficult piece of public policy that I've ever had the opportunity to deal with. It's been very difficult to sort it all out."
He said there are three overriding issues driving the decision-making process. They include: what's best for B.C. ratepayers, does the decision compromise the current safe, reliable and clean energy system and finding ways to work with area First Nations, who primarily oppose the project.
There are contingency measures in the $7.9-billion estimate as high as 18 per cent, meaning there are adequate buffers to protect against cost increases, the minister said.
Bennett said he doesn't expect First Nations to publicly endorse the project if it proceeds, but he's hopeful benefit agreements can be negotiated to appease their concerns.
Bennett said First Nations' companies and people could benefit greatly from the project.
B.C. Hydro said the project, which has been undergoing public reviews and consultations with First Nations, communities and stakeholders since 2007, reached a major milestone when it received the federal and provincial environmental certificates.
Environmental groups called those decisions flawed, warning Site C is a mega dam that will have impacts on First Nations and area wildlife that cannot be mitigated.
A joint review panel report released in May said the dam would cause significant adverse effects on fish and wildlife, but concluded the province will need new energy and the dam would provide a large amount of inexpensive power.
The report also said the project would significantly impact the current use of land and resources traditionally used by First Nations and the effect of that on treaty rights would have to be weighed by government.
Recently, the Peace area's West Moberly First Nation told both the federal and B.C. governments it will not support both the dam and LNG development in the Peace River area.