British Columbia·Analysis

To sell jobs message, B.C. Liberals need Site C

B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark is known for putting on her hard hat and touting B.C.'s economic growth. But her jobs message is taking on extra importance this election following the failure of the LNG industry to take off as promised.

Liberal leader Christy Clark spent Tuesday campaigning in Fort St. John

Christy Clark signs helmet of worker in Fort St. John. (Richard Zussman/CBC)

It took eight days of campaigning but finally on Tuesday the hard hat returned.

B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark wore the campaign uniform that defined her victory in the 2013 provincial election.

B.C. Premier and Liberal Leader Christy Clark puts on a pink hard hat during the 2013 provincial election campaign. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Four years ago Clark travelled across the province in her hard hat, talking about the potential of Liquefied Natural Gas with a bus plastered with the words 'Debt Free B.C.' The LNG dream has so far failed to boom in B.C. and the jobs and revenues associated with it are delayed, if they come at all.

This time around for Clark, the hard hat symbolizes far more than just being on a construction site. It symbolizes the idea that British Columbians expect a future that includes resource-based jobs.

That is why B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark was in Fort St. John on Tuesday, the community most closely connected to the Site C dam. 

Clark needs the $8.8 billion project on the Peace River to complete so she can maintain credibility on her promises of job growth.

"This is the biggest clean energy project under way anywhere in North America. It is going to create thousands of good paying jobs, family supporting jobs. It is going to mean our economy can be powered by clean, affordable power," said Clark. 

Right now 2,124 people work on the site. The projection from B.C. Hydro is that more than 5,000 people could work on the dam in the province's northeast by 2020. Plus there are others counting on the work.

"Up here we had brought times with the oil fields and my company was lucky enough to get in on some the work on site and it kept us going during the hard times," said Kristi Pimm, the owner of Alpha controls in Fort St. John. 

More than 2,100 workers are currently working on the Site C dam near Fort St. John. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Looking for alternatives

But getting the project to the finish line is not a guarantee. 

There are questions about whether the electricity is needed or whether investing in old technology, compared to alternatives like wind power, is a prudent decision. 

"In the short run as Hydro plans showed there are a lot of alternative energy options," said Harry Swain, who was on the Site C Joint Review panel. "If you build a large project like this, which adds 8 per cent of total capacity at once, you will face a period of time when it [electricity] can't be sold at an advantageous price."

But those low electricity prices, which have dragged on now, according to Swain, for two decades, aren't deterring Clark. 

Can B.C. afford Site C?

At this point, moving away from Site C is something Clark can't afford. The jobs that would be created by the project are too valuable a political promise that the B.C. Liberals can't let it fail, even if electricity prices are low.

But critics wonder if British Columbia can afford for it to go ahead.

A new report released by the University of British Columbia calls the Site C business case 'weak' and suggests the project be suspended. In what researchers bill as a 'comprehensive analysis,' they say Site C is now much more expensive than an alternative consisting of wind power, pumped storage and energy conservation.

The argument is that canceling the project as of June 30, 2017 would save the province between $500 million and $1.65 billion, depending on future energy consumption levels.

The UBC researchers found the energy would likely need to be exported at a loss because electricity demand has dropped significantly.

"The business case for Site C is far weaker now than when the project was launched, to the point that the project is now uneconomic," said Karen Bakker, the director of UBC's Program on Water Governance. "The good news is that we are not past the point of no return, according to out analysis."

Job creation crucial story line

But the B.C. Liberals are past their point of no return. The political costs associated with scrapping this project would be crippling.

Not only would it wash out the party's commitment to create jobs in the region, it would put into question the entire story line. 

"If we get re-elected this project will go ahead. The opposition each have a plan. Under the NDP Site C would be dead. Under the Greens it would be deader."

That's not entirely the case. The B.C. NDP would send the project to the B.C. Utilities Commission for review and allow the independent body to determine if the electricity is needed and whether the project is the best option for the province.

But it is a line that gets the applause of Clark's supporters and keeps the dream alive that the Site C dam can create the thousands of jobs that the B.C. Liberals have promised. Those jobs are necessary if Clark wants to keep hers.