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Critics dominate Site C feedback, but politicos get final say

VICTORIA — The B.C. Utilities Commission wrapped up the initial round of public consultations on Site C this week, gathering more than 100 submissions from experts, stakeholders and ordinary citizens.

They ranged from the terse — “I find it extremely irresponsible” was the entire submission from one Lynne Frerichs — to exhaustive detail running to the hundreds of pages.

Most called for the project to be killed. Reviewing the postings on the commission website Friday, I found there were three or four “nays” for every “yea.”

Together they raised legitimate doubts about B.C. Hydro’s claim — laid out in a 900-page submission filed with the commission this week — that Site C is on time, on budget, much needed and cheaper than any alternative.

But I was also struck by how many of the submissions raised matters that fall outside the narrow boundaries set down for the review by the NDP government.

“Whether the project is on time and within budget; the cost to ratepayers of suspending the project; the cost to ratepayers of terminating the project,” was the way the commission itself characterized the mandate in a plea to would-be respondents to be relevant.

“Our inquiry will examine the cost to B.C. Hydro ratepayers if the Site C project were to be suspended or terminated. The terms of reference do not include economic implications beyond B.C. Hydro ratepayers.”

Despite those cautions, many submissions were devoted to broader concerns, including impacts on employment, investment, farmland, the environment, First Nations and local communities.

The commission has already signalled the likely fate of beside-the-point submissions: “Please do not submit data/analysis or comments that are not within the scope of the inquiry as they will not be considered or included in our reports.”

Doubtless those broader matters will be back on the table when the NDP cabinet makes the final call on the fate of Site C as it is scheduled to do sometime after the commission issues its final findings in November.

But for now, the focus is on the narrow scope and tight time frame set down by the cabinet. Even within that limited mandate, the commission will be hard pressed to deliver the goods, a point underscored by former Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen in his submission.

“Undertaking a fulsome evaluation of the requested assessment of project costs and construction schedule requires extensive time and resources,” wrote Eliesen, who headed Hydro under the last NDP government.

“The commission is well aware that under normal due process a review such as this would take 12 to 18 months to complete.”

But that generous time frame was no longer available, for reasons Eliesen went on to note.

The Liberals exempted Site C from a proper review by the commission and then proceeded with construction with a view to (as Premier Christy Clark put it last year) getting the project “past the point of no return.”

After being bypassed at the outset, says Eliesen, “the commission does not have the historical record of due diligence that would normally accompany a public project of this magnitude to draw on and assist it in responding to the government’s request.”

A related concern was raised by Harry Swain, the former head of the Joint Review Panel on Site C and now one of the sharpest critics of the project.

Like Eliesen, Swain argued strongly against proceeding with Site C. But he also acknowledged the onus is on the commission to reconcile the claims of Hydro and its critics in fairly short order.

“Only the commission can compel the production of documents from B.C. Hydro relating to sunk costs and costs to complete,” he wrote.

“Since these figures are not accessible to interveners, they (and the government) must rely on independent work by the commission itself on whether we have passed the point of no return. … Likewise, only the commission can compel the production of information about the future financial condition of B.C. Hydro that will govern rates.

“The commission cannot simply adjudicate among submissions received in this review. It must undertake its own research and analysis.”

Yes, it must. But the challenge is to do so in as thorough a fashion as possible on the schedule set down by the New Democrats.

The commission has until Sept 20 to complete the analysis for and against proceeding with Site C and deliver a preliminary set of findings to the cabinet.

It will then plunge straight into another round of public consultations, albeit nothing like the wide-open process contemplated in some of this week’s submissions.

The schedule, released Friday, calls for a dozen input sessions in nine communities between Sept. 23 and Oct. 11, plus two separate sessions for First Nations.

Participants who register in advance will be accorded a mere five minutes to comment. No visual props, no power point. Submissions that fall outside the scope of the review “will not be considered by the panel.”

The review panel will then have another three weeks to craft and deliver a final report to cabinet, as requested, by Nov. 1.

But as the commission hastens to underscore, it will do no more than “present our findings on the costs to B.C. Hydro ratepayers of the options for Site C.” No recommendations.

The final call on those and other considerations is up to the politicians and given the degree of controversy, I expect the commissioners wouldn’t have it any other way.

Vpalmer@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/VaughnPalmer

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http://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/vaughn-palmer-critics-dominate-site-c-feedback-but-politicos-get-final-say