A dam shame

April 1, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Originally published on Onearth.org.

Let me get this straight: you want to flood a pristine valley in Canada to generate power so you can ship natural gas overseas to keep Asia’s lights on?

Ken Boon stands on high ground above the Peace River and points to the spot, a hundred feet downhill, where the floodwater from a proposed dam would submerge his Bear Flats Farm.

As third-generation farmers, Ken and his wife, Arlene, have spent most of their adult lives trying to save their land in northeastern British Columbia—and with it, the Peace River Valley—from the Site C dam. The proposed hydroelectric project would flood over 13,000 acres of farmland and wildlife habitat along a 50-mile stretch of river. “We’d probably lose 90 percent of our land to flooding and erosion,” says Arlene. “We’d basically have nothing left.”

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Unlike Canada’s other infamous energy projects—the tar sands mines or the Northern Gateway Pipeline—you’ve probably never heard of the Site C dam. Sixty percent of British Columbians don’t know about it, even though BC Hydro, the province’s largest electric utility, has been trying to build the dam for four decades. Now, to the dismay of farmers like the Boons, First Nations tribes, wildlife biologists, and valley residents, the dam may finally get the green light: a federal panel recently concluded six weeks of public hearings on the project, and a decision is expected this summer.

Why the sudden rush? The answer may lie in the fracking boom sweeping across British Columbia. The energy from the dam, government officials have stated, will help power new facilities designed to liquefy natural gas for export. So, yeah: the province wants to inundate a valley in British Columbia to generate hydroelectricity so it can process fracked natural gas to send overseas to help keep the lights on in Tokyo and Seoul. Welcome to the modern energy economy.

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BC Hydro, however, claims that liquefying natural gas isn’t the dam’s purpose, though acknowledges a rapidly growing LNG industry would increase demand. The utility forecasts that demand for electricity will increase 40 percent in the next 20 years, driven by a growing population and booming industries such as mining. According to the company, the dam could power 450,000 residences. “Look at all the electronic devices that people have on their person, in their homes … we’re looking at potential load growth with electric vehicles as well,” BC Hydro spokesman Dave Conway told The Globe and Mail. (Executives have also broached the possibility of selling the dam’s energy to California.)

But the BC government has made no bones about why it wants Site C’s power. The province already produces around 3.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day, and energy companies like Chevron and Shell are lining up along BC’s western coast to export the gas to Asia. Provincial premiere Christy Clark has repeatedly stated that those proposed LNG plants (which require enormous amounts of energy to cool and compress gas and to fuel other parts of their operations) would need Site C’s power, and Rich Coleman, BC’s natural gas minister, has said that failing to build Site C would jeopardize LNG’s future in the province. (Some LNG plants may sustain themselves using their own natural gas, but others would likely draw on BC Hydro’s electricity.) A single plant could annually consume all of the 900 megawatts that Site C is expected to generate.

So eager is BC’s government to construct the $8 billion, taxpayer-funded dam that it has exempted the project from oversight by the British Columbia Utilities Commission, a regulatory agency that shot down previous attempts to construct the dam. “The government has a passion for LNG,” says Canadian economist Erik Andersen. “They’re going to do whatever it takes to make it happen. And one of the things they can do is make inexpensive electricity available.”

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The Peace River Valley forms the narrow waist of an enormous hourglass of prime wildlife habitat spread across western Canada: To the south lie the famed Rocky Mountain parks, Banff and Jasper; to the north is the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area, a wilderness the size of Ireland. The Peace, says biologist Brian Churchill, is where those ecosystems meet and mingle. Grizzlies, moose, lynx, caribou, and wolverines travel the cottonwood-lined streams that branch through the valley like veins in a leaf. “Name a species of large mammal in British Columbia, and they occur in the Peace Valley,” Churchill says.

Site C—so named because it would be the third major dam on the river—threatens to disrupt that connectivity. The project’s total footprint, including construction and erosion, touches nearly 60,000 acres—and would be another massive blow to an area already suffering from unrestrained energy production. A 2012 study by the David Suzuki Foundation found that the Peace Region contains enough roads, pipelines, and seismic lines to circle the earth more than four times, and a recent report by biologist Clayton Apps, on behalf of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, suggested that the cumulative impacts of Site C and existing development would severely degrade habitat for large mammals such as bears and caribou. And BC Hydro’s own environmental impact studies predict harm to birds and migratory bull trout.

The potential decline of wildlife explains why the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, a coalition of First Nations that represents around 3,000 people, is among Site C’s staunchest opponents. In an 1899 treaty, the Canadian government promised the tribes no “forced interference with their mode of life”—a guarantee that British Columbia’s energy rush has repeatedly violated, says Roland Willson, chief of West Moberly First Nation. Willson ticks off the insults on his fingers: pipeline spills and leaks, bull trout contaminated with methylmercury, and caribou populations decimated by habitat fragmentation. Site C, Willson fears, would further degrade his people’s land and subsistence. “They keep pushing us off to the side,” he says. “It’s gotten to the point that there’s nowhere left to push us.”

BC Hydro is offering aboriginal groups what it calls “impact benefit agreements,” which are compensation packages that some First Nations have already accepted. Other tribes, however, aren’t biting. “No amount of money will ever buy us off our land,” declares Liz Logan, Tribal Chief for the Treaty 8 Tribal Association. “You can’t put a dollar value on our treaty rights.”

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The Site C project has divided not only First Nations tribes, but also the province’s agricultural community. BC Hydro has engaged in a decades-long campaign to buy up land from farmers, and while Ken and Arlene Boon insist they won’t budge, many of their neighbors have. And the ones who have stayed, says Arlene, have been discouraged from improving their land by the lingering threat of the dam. “There’s been a black cloud hanging over this valley for decades,” she says. If that cloud is lifted, however, the Peace’s rich soil and mild climate could make it a breadbasket for the province. Wendy Holm, former president of the BC Institute of Agrologists, testified before the federal review panel that the land slated for flooding is potentially capable of feeding more than a million people.

The silver lining is that the dam proposal has long kept private lands developers at bay, and there’s been a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the zone that would be flooded by Site C since 1957. Andrea Morison, coordinator of the Peace Valley Environment Association, the primary group opposing the dam, says this incidental conservation has created the opportunity to engineer a different future for the Peace, one in which wildlife habitat, agriculture, and alternate energy sources like geothermal—an option that the Canadian Geothermal Society says could obviate the need for Site C—define the region’s future. As the cost of generating clean kilowatts drops, wind power could also play a larger role in the BC’s energy mix.

“The rationale for Site C has always been slippery,” Morison says. “You can have your energy, but you don’t need to ruin this valley to get it.”

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Ben Goldfarb

Ben Goldfarb is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, The New YorkTimes, Science, and many other publications. He is the author of “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” and the forthcoming “Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet” (W.W. Norton, September 2023).

Tags: hydroelectric projects, LNG, LNG exports