Aboriginal rights must be balanced against other competing, critical interests.
Given the desire for green energy, you would think a Green Party leader would support more hydro power for Vancouver. Or for export to the US and Alberta, which would allow Alberta to reduce emissions.
That would mean the Site C Dam, a hydroelectric project under development and previously supported by BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, would be a slam dunk.
But Weaver has apparently had an epiphany about the dam. He now finds it economically unattractive (citing lower costs for wind and solar power), and potentially an infringement of First Nations rights.
However, wind and solar power are intermittent sources at the whims of nature. That means you must have 100 per cent backup power at peak consumption levels to displace renewable output when it slumps.
And then there’s the cost. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the 2016 “levelized” cost of hydroelectricity was US$64 per megawatt-hours (MWh), a common billing unit for energy, for projects coming online in 2022. When you remove the tax credits given to wind and solar power, you find that solar photovoltaic is projected to cost $73.60 per MWh, and onshore wind costs $56 per MWh, comparable to natural gas.
But you can’t just swap out gas or hydro for renewables because you must maintain 100 per cent redundant power capacity for renewables, in a way you don’t have to for hydro or natural gas.
Weaver said a major reason for his change of mind was the indigenous rights the project will threaten. Of note are sacred cultural sites for the nearby Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations. The construction of Site C involves a highway realignment through a 4,000-to-5,000-year-old gravesite and sweat lodge.
Of course, the route should be changed to avoid these cultural sites, if possible. At a minimum, the B.C. government should compensate the communities and pay for a respectful grave relocation.
However, indigenous communities are not only among those affected. Other nearby landowners face expropriation for the construction. But power dams are clearly legitimate public purposes that justify expropriation.
And even indigenous opponents of the project admit there have been thousands of hours of consultation meetings with First Nations and other affected parties.
Five First Nations have signed impact benefits agreements and one is in negotiation. Two First Nations are still firmly against the project and have taken the government to court to stop the project – and have failed each time. Those First Nations also lost a Federal Court challenge and, on June 29, the Supreme Court declined to hear two appeals that sought to delay Site C project.
Treaty and aboriginal rights are extremely important but like any rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they’re not absolute. They must be balanced against other rights and competing critical interests.
To many, including Canadian courts, the Site C consultation was meaningful and extensive. The BC government and BC Hydro met and discussed the project, its impact, and how to mitigate any impacts to treaty rights or any damage to the environment. Compensation, land transfers and job opportunities were always on the table.
The Fraser Institute has documented how positive partnerships with First Nations on resource development help make provinces more attractive to investment, which benefits everyone involved. In the case of mining, for example, the Fraser Institute showed how 45 mining partnerships between First Nations and resource companies in Saskatchewan helped turn that province into a mining investment magnet.
So rather than stand in the way of Site C, Weaver should stand alongside electricity users (anyone who pays a power bill in BC) and the indigenous communities that have signed agreements with the government.
And he should work hard to convince his caucus and the government, regardless of which party is in power, to keep energy affordable in British Columbia and to make First Nations full partners in energy development.
Co-author Joseph Quesnel is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute. © 2017 Distributed by Troy Media