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After intense debate, Horgan and B.C. NDP say yes to $11B Site C dam project

Voters' hydro bills — not jobs or Indigenous rights — ended up being main factor in the John Horgan government's most controversial choice yet.

Premier John Horgan is joined by Minister of Energy Michelle Mungall after giving the green light on continuing construction on the controversial Site C Dam project during a press conference in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, December 11, 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Premier John Horgan is joined by Minister of Energy Michelle Mungall after giving the green light on continuing construction on the controversial Site C Dam project during a press conference in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, December 11, 2017.

On Monday, the B.C. New Democrats approved their predecessors' $11-billion Site C dam for one main reason alone: to avoid jacking up voters' monthly hydro bills by an unpopular 12 per cent in 2020.

Secondly: they were convinced cancelling the B.C. Liberal-started project could spell fiscal doom for BC Hydro itself, and endanger the province's credit rating — even though it is expected to blow its 2014 budget by $1.7 billion.

Premier John Horgan made the decision last Wednesday after nine hours of gruelling meetings with his Cabinet.

"At the end of the day, although Site C is not the project we would have favoured and started, it must be completed," Horgan told reporters Monday morning. "… I've sat across the kitchen table with people who live on the river, I've sat with Indigenous peoples across the province and on the Treaty 8 territories, I've talked to workers whose jobs are on the line with this project.

"I can say without hesitation this is a very, very divisive issue and it will have profound impacts not just on people in the region, but on all British Columbians this generation and next generation. We have not made this decision lightly."

Even Horgan's own spouse and brother opposed continuing the project, Horgan revealed Monday.

The choice will come as a relief to nearly 2,000 employed on the Site C construction site in northeast B.C.'s Peace River valley, as well as B.C. families already struggling with more expensive household bills.

But for two Treaty 8 First Nations, environmental advocates, local landowners and farmers, the decision comes as a deep blow — and will undoubtedly sour parts of the NDP's voter base to the party just five months into its Green Party-backed government.

While trying to pin blame for their decision on their B.C. Liberal predecessors, it's now the B.C. NDP's project — along with all the fiscal risks of proceding, including billions in expected overrun costs and deadlines.

"Megaproject mismanagement by the old government has left B.C. in a terrible situation," Horgan said in a statement to press. "But we cannot punish British Columbians for those mistakes, and we can't change the past."

To that end, the B.C. NDP are ramping up the $440-million "risk reserve" in case the project goes sideways — upping it by more than 60 per cent to $708 million. And in hopes to get the construction costs down or at least within budget, B.C. is creating "enhanced oversight" for spending.

"We will not ask British Columbians to take on $4 billion in debt with nothing in return for the people of this province," Horgan stated.

Construction work has been underway for more than two years in the Peace Valley on the Site C hydroelectric dam, near Fort St. John, as seen in this 2016 photo

Courtesy Peace Valley Hydro Partners

Construction work has been underway for more than two years in the Peace Valley on the Site C hydroelectric dam, near Fort St. John, as seen in this 2016 photo

The decision took Cabinet ministers roughly nine hours, in three sessions, agonizing over the choice last week, reporters were told in a technical briefing before the announcement.

It's his nascent government's most difficult and perhaps internally divisive decision since coming to power thanks to an agreement with Greens, who are staunchly against the dam.

Their leader, Andrew Weaver, last week issued an open letter "making the case for cancelling Site C," calling the project "folly," "fiscally reckless", "beset by considerable risks of further costly overruns and delays," and "irresponsible."

Weaver — who has told reporters Site C's approval will not endanger the Green-NDP confidence agreement — tweeted that a recall campaign might be in the works if the NDP approves Site C, targeting energy minister Michelle Mungall in Nelson-Creston.

"I would suggest a recall campaign in Nelson-Creston would be in order if Site C is approved on her watch as energy minister," he wrote Sunday morning on Twitter.

It's also put into stark relief divisions between voters in the B.C. NDP's urban strongholds, where anti-dam sentiment is most widespread, with the party's fragile status in the Interior and rural areas.

Under the party's confidence and supply pact with the Greens — which enabled the NDP to rule despite B.C. Liberals holding more seats in the legislature — Site C was sent to the B.C. Utilities Commission with construction well underway. The previous B.C. Liberal government had exempted it for such a review of its economics, costs and energy predictions.

The 1,100-megawatt Site C hydroelectric dam would generate enough power for the equivalent of 450,000 homes, BC Hydro stated, and would submerge nearly 10,000 hectares of land.

The B.C. Liberals' 10-year rate plan — including Site C — planned to increase residents' hydro rates twice in the next decade, by 1.1 per cent each time, because of the dam's long-term financing.

Asked about the disappointment expressed immediately by First Nations to the decision, Horgan said it's not the first time Indigenous People will have been let down by government.

"Look, there has been over 150 years of disappointment in B.C.," Horgan admitted. "I'm not the first to stand before you and disappoint Indigenous people … True reconciliation is what we're focused on. Surely we can get past the acrimony around a big project."

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