02/04/2015 05:15 EST | Updated 04/06/2015 05:59 EDT

Unplugged B.C. utilities commission gets power boost: energy minister

VICTORIA - Energy Minister Bill Bennett says the government will boost the power of the British Columbia Utilities Commission after unplugging it from major decisions that included the Site C dam, Northwest Transmission Line, smart meters and hydro rate policies.

Opposition New Democrat critic Adrian Dix said lifting the power blackout to the regulatory body responsible for provincial utilities is long overdue. It comes after the government proceeded with costly energy projects and initiatives without the benefit of independent utilities commission oversight, he said.

Bennett said Wednesday the government is prepared to implement the recommendations of a task force that called for a strengthened and independent utilities commission.

The decision was made almost three years after the provincial government cancelled public hearings by the utilities commission into a proposed hydro rate hike of 30 per cent, then chopped the increase in half, saying families need a break and the utility could afford the cut.

The minister said the independent task force provided valuable insight and recommendations to improve the utility commission's effectiveness and efficiency and restore confidence for ratepayers and utilities.

The report released by the task force last fall made 35 recommendations to improve the governance, processes and performance at the BCUC.

Among the task force's recommendations were hiring full-time commissioners and developing a memorandum of understanding to ensure clear roles and responsibilities between the government and the utilities commission.

"The existence of an independent expert commission is more important than ever today," the report's three panellists concluded in November 2014. "By regulating monopolies the BCUC provides an essential public service."

The report concluded government and stakeholder confidence in the utilities commission has declined and "rectifying this requires restoring the commission’s independence within its mandate and increasing the commission’s expertise and credibility. Without these, there is little reason to expect stakeholders will respect or defer to it."

Bennett said the Liberal government's 2007 Energy Plan and 2010 Clean Energy Act set sights on achieving major energy initiatives, and BCUC oversight was not part of the plan.

"There was a belief that building Site C, Northwest Transmission Line and smart meters were all very high-level projects that needed to happen," he said. "Government made the decision at that time to do that."

But Bennett said now that the almost $9 billion Site C hydroelectric dam in northeast B.C. has been approved, along with other initiatives, the time has come to restore power to the utilities commission.

"It's a trend that we need to reverse," he said. "I think we need to find a way to give the utilities commission more capacity, more resources so that they can deal with not just the smaller issues, but the big issues."

Dix said Site C, the Northwest Transmission Line and smart meters could all have benefited from reviews by an independent utilities commission. He said that oversight would likely have saved taxpayer dollars.

"Every time the BCUC and the law stands in the way, Premier Christy Clark and Mr. Bennett run roughshod over it," he said.