Friday, April 08, 2011

Coleman takes first step on B.C. Hydro rates

Energy Minister Rich Coleman's quick review of B.C. Hydro might ease the hit from planned 10-per-cent annual rate increases.
But it remains to be seen if the three deputy ministers tapped to do the investigation will be willing to go far enough in looking at the decisions that landed the Crown corporation in this spot.
B.C. Hydro plans to raise rates by almost 10 per cent a year for each of the next three years.
Infrastructure has been neglected, the corporation says, and it needs to spend about $6 billion - $3.4 billion in the next two years alone - to get things back on track.
And B.C. Hydro has been forced into some costly ventures by the government as part of Gordon Campbell's energy plans. Those too are sending rates soaring.
Coleman has asked three deputy ministers - John Dyble from the premier's office, Peter Milburn from finance and Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland from the environmental assessment office - to take a quick look at B.C. Hydro.
They've got a mandate to examine everything, with the goal of keeping rate increases down and will report by June 30. It's a worthwhile exercise. And keeping the review in-house is cheaper and faster.
But it also raises concerns. For example, if B.C. Hydro's dams and transmission lines have really been neglected for years, meaning customers today are being stuck with big catch-up bills, how did that happen? Will the deputies point fingers at their political masters?
And it's unclear whether the three really have a free hand. Coleman has already said he's sold on B.C. Hydro's $1-billion plan to install smart meters in every home. Will the reviewers take a hard look at the costs and benefits?
The review should include a hard look at the energy policies of the Campbell government, particularly last year's Clean Energy Act.
That act, along with past government policies, set B.C. Hydro off in some very costly directions.
The government has insisted that B.C. Hydro make the province self-sufficient in meeting electricity needs.
That means more generating capacity and contracts with private producers than are actually needed most of the time so that B.C. Hydro can meet the peak demand with in-province power production.
It might well be less costly for Hydro - and thus its customers - to continue to buy some power from sources outside the province to meet peak demand.
The requirement is linked with another policy push to make B.C. a power exporter.
But again, that requires commitments of billions of dollars in infrastructure and long-term deals with private power producers. That new power comes at a very high rate; if B.C. Hydro can't sell it a profit, then customers must pay higher rates to cover the losses.
Christy Clark has been quick to signal a new direction in some areas. But the private power companies are keen on the lucrative long-term contracts and would object to any changes. It's hard to know where the deputy ministers will be willing - or have time - to reconsider the policy.
The Clean Energy Act also weakened the role of the B.C. Utilities Commission. The commission is supposed to regulate hydro rates. It reviews the Crown corporation's applications for rate increases and scrutinizes its spending plans to make sure no more money is being spent than is necessary. That included a review of capital projects and plans to buy energy from private suppliers.
It's an important function anytime there is a monopoly supplier.
But the act barred the commission from scrutinizing a wide range of projects, from the proposed multibillion-dollar Site C dam on the Peace River to the northwest transmission line.
And it prevented the utilities commission from reviewing B.C. Hydro's call for high-priced clean or renewable energy from private companies.
Removing that protection put consumers at risk.
Coleman's panel might be a useful start. But a thorough review of the government's energy policy is needed.
Footnote: The government's position on smart meters is puzzling. The meters are controversial; the best argument for them is that they allow different electricity rates at different times of day. Rewarding people for using power at off-peak periods means less capacity is needed and overall rates can be lower. But Coleman has ruled out that kind of pricing.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Leaders eerily silent on our two wars

It's amazing that we're fighting two wars during an election campaign and nobody is talking about them as issues.
People might just be tired of Afghanistan. Our troops have been fighting for nine years. We're stepping back, sort of, this year.
Still, it's not clear how many Canadians will stay in the conflict, or whether anything lasting has been accomplished. Those should be campaign issues.
Libya is brand new. Canada signed on to a military mission there March 19, just before the election campaign started.
That should be a big decision. As citizens, we bear responsibility for government actions. And going to war should bring the greatest responsibility.
Not just for our troops. In fact, Libya has been pretty safe for them. Our role has involved bombing targets with no real resistance from Libyan forces.
But people get killed when you drop bombs. And once you jump into a fight in another country, you're committed.
This week, people in Libya described a massacre in Misrata, as government troops closed in on rebel forces. Our intervention set the stage for that massacre.
The original reason for United Nations intervention was to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from killing rebels who had been empowered by the spirit of protest in North Africa. Gadhafi has oppressed his people for decades; his people were rising up; the West would make sure they weren't slaughtered, but not actually help them fight.
It was all tidily limited. We'd bomb, but we wouldn't invade.
But surely someone in Canada's government, or Parliament, should have asked questions.
What if bombing wasn't enough, for example? Would we send troops to protect the insurgents, or watch them be massacred?
Canadians needed those answers. The insurgents needed them a lot more.
Stephen Harper, unlike most western leaders, said Canada was engaging in "acts of war" against the Libyan government. That suggests pretty committed support for the anti-Gadhafi forces now facing disaster as they confront trained, well-equipped government troops.
Harper also seemed surprisingly uninformed as he predicted western support would lead to Gadhafi's quick defeat.
"He simply will not last very long," Harper said last month as Canada signed on to the effort. "I think that is the basis on which we're moving forward. If I am being frank here, that is probably more understood than spoken aloud. But I just said it aloud."
But Gadhafi is lasting. He's killing the people who rose up, and who counted on us.
It appears now that Libya could be carved up into two nations - never a recipe for long-term stability.
It's also increasingly clear that little is known about the power groups within the rebel forces or their ability to co-operate if they do control all or part of the country.
After the world stood by as horrific massacres took place in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, Canada led in developing the concept or a "responsibility to protect."
When innocents were being massacred, the global community should not defer to national sovereignty, the doctrine holds. The greater duty was to those in peril.
In the real world, it is a difficult construct. Why Libya, and not the Ivory Coast? If aerial bombings are ineffective, does the responsibility demand arms support for the insurgents, or Canadian troops on the ground? How many years will Canadian jets patrol Libyan skies?
I have no idea. But surely our elected representatives should be discussing these questions seriously.
That has not happened. All four parties with representatives in Parliament supported the Libyan intervention. No MPs asked hard questions about what would happen if the plan didn't work. (The Green oppose the military intervention, favouring diplomatic efforts.)
It looks like a political issue for them. And life or death for Libyans.
The responsibility to protect people at imminent risk of violence is a fine principle.
But putting it into action requires careful thought and planning and a full public discussion of the goals, methods and what could go wrong.
All were missing in the Libyan intervention.
Footnote: Harper has used the mission to justify buying new jet fighters. The argument could equally be made that Canada could have fulfilled its role with other contributions and the Libyan interventions shows just how rarely the costly jets would be needed.