Les Leyne: Job count is critical at Site C dam

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Les Leyne mugshot genericIf reaching an “employment milestone” is such a big deal, you’d think the employer would be the one trumpeting the achievement.


 


But B.C. Hydro stayed relatively quiet on the occasion of the Site C dam employment roll topping the 2,000 mark. It was the government of B.C. that got excited about spreading the news. Energy Minister Bill Bennett issued a statement on Monday using a routine employment update that Hydro posted on a Site C website to highlight the number of workers at the Peace River work camp.


It counted 2,124 workers on the project in January, with 1,719 (81 per cent) identified as being from B.C. There were 677 workers identified as being from the Peace River region. There were 198 aboriginal people working on site and 257 women.


January was the 17th month of construction on the dam, which is estimated eventually to provide 10,000 direct construction jobs over the eight-year build.


Whether the $8.7-billion energy project is a good idea or not continues to prompt arguments. Most of them are about the approval process, the debt incurred and whether the power is or will be needed.


But the Liberal government wants the immediate focus for the next two months to be on jobs. The higher the job count, the more awkward it is for the NDP to be so skeptical about the project.


In January 2016, at former premier Bill Bennett’s memorial service, Premier Christy Clark made a specific vow about the project. “Premier Bennett, you got it started, and I will get it finished. I will get it past the point of no return.”


That point can be measured by contract value or by progress on the site, but the measure the government is keen to use is jobs.


The NDP and John Horgan have wandered back and forth over the years about the worthiness of the project, but in the past year the anti-dam stance has hardened. Horgan is not publicly, explicitly against the project. He cites all the reasons why it’s not a good idea, then commits to having the project reviewed by the independent B.C. Utilities Commission.


That promise is made in the confident belief the commission, which rejected the project in the early 1980s, would again not find it in the public interest.


NDP MLA Lana Popham made that clear at a public meeting in January (recorded by a Liberal staffer). She said an NDP government would refer the project to the BCUC on an expedited basis, giving it 60 days for a review. “There’s no way this project would pass.”


But if the NDP wins the May 9 vote and gets the BCUC decision it is looking for, somebody has to go up north and lay off 2,124 workers. With work continuing to ramp up, the count will be higher by then.


Which is why the Liberals are so keen to highlight the job count.


Horgan said last week he wasn’t presupposing an outcome. But he said the debt-ridden utility is raising rates “and building power when we know that demand has been flat for a decade.”


“I’m not assuming any outcome. I want an [independent] third party, not Liberals telling Liberals what to do, telling a new government what to do.”


He said work would not be suspended during the review period.


The project did get an assessment by a joint federal-provincial panel in 2014. Although it found the need for the new power at this point was not proven, the panel concluded:


“The benefits are clear. Despite high initial costs, and some uncertainty about when the power would be needed, the project would provide a large and long-term increment of firm energy and capacity at a price that would benefit future generations.”


There will always be guesswork when figuring demand and pricing decades into the future. So the Liberals are going to focus on jobs in the here and now in making the case for the dam.


Even if all the NDP’s reasons are valid, shutting down a multibillion-dollar project is a tricky proposition. The government that started the work wants to make it as difficult as possible.


lleyne@timescolonist.com

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