bc-100419-site-c-rendering

This artist's rendering shows what the Site C dam could look like by 2020. (BC Hydro)

The B.C. government took control of major energy projects like the proposed Site C dam in northeastern B.C. Wednesday with the introduction of a new Clean Energy Act.

The bill promotes energy self-sufficiency, independent power production and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, according to B.C. Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom.

Lekstrom said the proposed law encourages development of the province's valuable clean and renewable resources, and will help ensure electricity self-sufficiency by 2016.

He sidestepped Opposition criticism that the law puts more power in the hands of the government to oversee major projects, such as Site C, one of Canada's largest proposed power developments.

The 35-page, 77-section act grants the government the power to exempt some projects from full review by the provincial regulatory agency, the B.C. Utilities Commission.

Critic says commission being punished

Major turbine installation projects at the Mica Dam near Revelstoke and the Site C proposal to build a third hydro-electric generating dam on the Peace River, are exempt from commission scrutiny under the law.

Lekstrom said the utilities commission still retains its oversight on power prices and its review authority on setting rates, but the government wants to ensure some major projects proceed.

Opposition New Democrat energy critic John Horgan said the act weakens the utilities commission and gives the provincial cabinet more power to control mega projects.

"The projects that are exempt are the only significant projects on hydro's inventory for the next 20 years, and none of them will have the appropriate oversight," he said.

In 2009, the utilities commission rejected BC Hydro's plans to buy power and Horgan said the commission is now being punished for thwarting the government's will.

"I think that by rejecting the long term acquisition plan last summer, the commission and the commissioners, doing the right thing, signed their death warrant in the eyes of Premier [Gordon] Campbell."

But Lekstrom said the suggestion is off-base and that the province needs an energy policy that's transparent, not based on directives from a regulatory body.

Earlier this month, the Liberals announced plans to go ahead with an environmental assessment on the massive Site C hydro-electric dam in northeastern B.C.

Concern about rate increases

Site C, located near the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams on the Peace River near Fort St. John, has been an on-again, off-again development since the 1970s.

The premier said British Columbia's anticipated growing power needs — an expected 40 per cent increase by 2020 — make Site C necessary to ensure the province has clean and abundant supplies of power.

The proposed Site C dam would generate 900 megawatts of hydroelectricity and enough power to light up 460,000 homes for a century.

Site C will also create an 83-kilometre long reservoir and flood about 5,400 hectares.

Area farmers, First Nations and environmental groups say the proposed project will destroy prime agricultural land, and many say much of the power from Site C is destined for export.

Lekstrom has said that B.C. needs to build Site C to ensure it can meet its own future energy needs, but power is also a potentially lucrative export commodity.

Horgan said he fears the new energy policy will lead to higher power rates for British Columbians as the government looks for ways to offer subsidies to independent power producers.

"There hasn't been a discussion with the people of B.C. about where we should be going," he said. "There are consequences to new sources of supply and that's going to lead to higher rates."