Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hydro's energy plan and Site C slam into political doubts

VICTORIA - The Liberals' pledge to keep politicians' hands off Crown corporations like BC Hydro is fading fast.
BC Hydro's brightest and best have been labouring away on a long-term energy plan, with the Site C dam as the centrepiece.
This week was supposed to be the big unveiling. Hydro CEO Bob Elton announced a press conference where he would be flanked by business types, and vice-presidents were fanning out to meet with the media.
And then 20 hours before the big announcement, the politicians pulled the plug.
"In consultation with government, we have now decided to postpone this release and will be doing further work to ensure that this plan meets the needs of ratepayers," Elton said in a terse news release. Hydro's future also needs to be "fully reviewed in the context of government's energy policies."
The order was not well-received in Hydro. The 20-year Integrated Energy Plan has been more than a year in the making, with a high-profile advisory committee, public meetings and lots of consultants and studies. It was to be the definitive look at energy needs for the next two decades, and the best way to meet them. The BC Utilities Commission was set to review it.
Something has gone seriously wrong when the politicians step in at the last minute, stepping all over Hydro's board and management.
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld said the government wanted more time to review the plan, which was presented to Liberal MLAs at a caucus meeting this week. The Crown corporation just got a little ahead of itself, he said.
But Neufeld didn't rule out changes before the plan goes to the utilities' commission.
The explanation leaves a few questions. The government has known for a year the plan was going to the utilities' commission this month, and for days that the announcement was scheduled for this week. There were no big surprises in the document, as energy ministry officials have been involved with the process all along.
So the last-minute cancellation suggests someone - the caucus, the premier's office - got nervous.
There's lots to get nervous about. Hydro's assessment of energy needs and the solutions it backs will have huge implications for the provincial economy. If it underestimates demand, B.C. will need to buy more expensive power from the U.S. If Hydro overestimates, the corporation will build power plants it doesn't need. Both would cost consumers money. If it makes the wrong choices on issues like big coal-fired plants versus small hydro projects, the province's economy is affected.
Hydro's preferred plan is likely based on building the Site C dam across the Peace River near Fort St. John, as well as energy conservation measures and additional power from private producers.
Site C makes a lot of people nervous. The $3.5-billion project was already scuttled by opponents once, in 1991. Independent power producers don't like the proposal, because they want to supply the electricity. First Nations have issues about lost hunting land when thousands of acres are flooded. And the accuracy of Hydro's cost projections have come under fire.
The Liberals have made much of the need to let Crown corporations operate without political interference, never missing a chance to talk about the $460 million lost thanks to the NDP's half-baked fast ferries project.
But there's been increasing recognition that leaving Crown corporations to their own devices carries its own risks and missed opportunities.
The BC Progress Board, a business panel appointed by the premier, weighed in last month with a report saying government, not BC Hydro, should be setting energy policy. "BC Hydro is seen by many concerned parties to heavily outweigh the ministry in staff and resources, which puts the government in the position of not being able to provide adequate oversight and direction," said the panel, chaired by Victoria newspaper mogul David Black.
The last-minute scuttling of the launch of BC Hydro's energy plan suggests the government has come to the same conclusion, and is reining in the Crown corporation.
Footnote: Things will get complicated quickly if the government wants significant changes to the plan. Hydro is supposed to present it to the utilities' commission within the next three months. Any major reworking could make it tough to meet the deadline - especially if BC Hydro's co-operation is less than enthusiastic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Liberal government made itself ideologically blind at the outset. They ran for office repeating phrases from business magazines as though these were incantations that would bring good luck by repetition. They featured such words as efficiency, businesslike, and competitive.

Then they made themselves blind in fact by severe reductions in government operations, and wholesale elimination or cramming together of many government functions, then disguising all this with a thick lard of recklessly false public relations double-speak mindlessly repeated until they probably convinced themselves.

Now, after the election they expected to lose they are forced to pretend they are a government, as the realities they made themselves unable or unwilling to see, come roaring to life. The hideous cruelty of ignoring child deaths within the system is surely enough to warn anyone that these appalling third rate clowns could not operate a fish-and-chip window location.

We have already seen much bigger financial disasters looming than the fast ferries were claimed to be.
There will now be a series of horror stories while the NDP, so busily showing which "interest group" does not own it, has managed to be found publicly in bed with the Government. So in this case we do not even have an opposition to oppose the Liberals.
I do not think it matters much now whether Campbell knows what financial debt horrors will be coming out of the ground or whether he and his political thugs only know the details of the airplance departures to Hawai
We are all stuck with the results now. At least one can hope that if anyone speaks of business efficiency in government in the future, we shall recall that it means blind indifference to the welfare of the public.