Political power, not Hydro, drives Site C

Critics of the B.C. Liberal government's decision to green-light the Site C dam project (and there are many reasons to be critical of it) are missing the key point in the whole debate.

As much as the decision was about electrical power, it was also about political power. As in, how to keep it.

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The move to build Site C was entirely in keeping with the political strategy that lies at the heart of the Christy Clark-led government. Strengthening the economy and specifically the natural resources aspect of it are the basis of that strategy.

This government's priorities are not health care or social services or environmental protection. Instead, they are big economic items like the LNG industry, mining and other forms of resource development, and mega-projects like the Site C dam.

The howls of outrage that can be heard from the environmental community over Site C are completely lost on the B.C. government and in fact may be more like music to its ears. The greater the wedge the government can create between environmentalists and pro-development folks, the better its chances for maintaining political power in this province.

The B.C. Liberals know full well that the environmental activist lobby, while well-organized, well-funded and well-covered by the media, actually represents a minority point of view among the voting public.

An important point here is the "voting public" is quite distinguishable from the general public. The voting public -the ones who determine who forms government -tend to be older voters, who are by nature more cautious and conservative than younger ones.

If the younger people at protest rallies against things like Site C or the Kinder Morgan pipeline actually turned out to vote in impressive numbers, that may change things. But until they do, all the chanting slogans in the world are going to matter little.

This is not to say actually building Site C is going to be an easy task. There are a half dozen court challenges already filed against the project, with the ones filed by First Nations bands potentially the most problematic.

Although the bands in the Peace River area where Site C would be located are among the few who have treaties with the province, they also have constitutionally-protected rights when it comes to their traditional use of the land, including hunting and fishing activities.

The joint review panel that awarded the environmental assessment of Site C also noted the dam poses a "significant adverse effect" to those traditional rights. Depending on how a high court weighs the importance of that finding, the project's future remains hazy at best.

Of course, B.C. Hydro is also negotiating with those bands for some kind of monetary settlement so it remains entirely possible the objections of First Nations may yet be resolved.

Nevertheless, the dam's construction (at least its initial stages) could be delayed by the court challenges. While the project is slated to begin in July, there is every possibility the first shovel in the ground won't occur until well past that. One of the unique construction challenges for the dam is the fact that diverting the Peace River around the construction site can only take place between August and September, so you can see the consequences of any major delay in scheduling.

Still, even if the dam's construction is put off a year (and presuming no court challenge ultimately succeeds) there will be work being done at the site by the time the 2017 election rolls around. And that means you can be sure Premier Christy Clark, wearing her trusty hard hat, will visit the Site C dam construction site a number of times.

By that time, Site C (and perhaps an LNG plant, should one ever get approved in B.C.), will provide the perfect backdrop for her relentless campaign message: grow the economy, create jobs and reap the benefits.

As they did in 2014, critics will mock her, citing all kinds of accurate statistics to rebuff her claims. But the B.C. Liberals learned in the last campaign that her message resonated with the people who actually vote, and they are betting that will be the case again when they have to ask for another mandate.

Clark considers Site C and LNG her potential legacies. No amount of protest rallies are going to knock her off her mark.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC keith.baldrey@globalnews.ca.

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