Next month's Site C decision is likely to be a defining moment that could set the tone for B.C.'s new NDP government for years to come, says Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughn Palmer.
Palmer was the keynote speaker at this year's CanaData West conference in downtown Vancouver, giving his analysis on some of the biggest stories in B.C.
The B.C. Utilities Commission is poised to present its fast-tracked report on the costs and risks associated with Site C next month and the NDP government will have to decide to halt or continue with the $8.8-billion project.
"I think that will be a test of what kind of government we are getting," said Palmer in an interview with the Journal of Commerce following his speech. "Are we getting a pragmatic government that is worried about upfront progress and jobs and economic development and willing to take some heat for it? Or do we have a government that is going to start from scratch and talk about green power and projects, but that stuff can take years to bring online. Site C will take years to get online but at least it is on its way."
Vaughn added cancelling the project would put 2,200 people out of work, write off $2 billion already spent on the project and would require a monumental effort to reverse work that has already been completed.
"I've toured Site C and it is massive what they are doing there," Palmer said. "They've moved millions of cubic yards of earth from the banks of the river, tunnelling into the river banks, coffer dams constructed, a huge amount of work done on the machine shops for the generators and turbines, and a great big housing project for the workers."
The NDP would also have to start from scratch on a new plan to meet future power demand, meaning many more years of environmental review and consultation with First Nations.
Palmer also weighed in on the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, saying the B.C. government is essentially a sideshow in the grander legal challenges to it.
The NDP has been granted the right to intervene in the giant case that consolidates 16 different court challenges. However, they were very late in applying and the judge has limited B.C.'s arguments to 20 minutes. The province can also only argue about whether or not the federal government and regulators sufficiently considered the risk of a marine oil spill.
"I don't think B.C.'s argument will be what carries the day," Palmer said.
The bigger test of the provincial government will be when and if construction starts. Palmer said huge protests could occur and the government will have to decide if it will support the project's right to build and crack down. This could be politically problematic as the NDP saw big electoral success in areas where the pipeline is unpopular, he added.
Palmer said he believes it could be a situation similar to the Clayoquot protests that contested clearcutting in Clayoquot Sound in 1993. Around 900 people were arrested, making it the largest act of civil disobedience in the country's history.
"The protestors are already rehearsing," said Palmer. "They have training schools. We could be in for some fairly significant environmental protests."
In addition to megaprojects, Palmer also advised the industry to look at the next NDP budget for clues as to how it will govern.
"The B.C. government spends an awful lot on capital and there is a big backlog," said Palmer.
B.C. is desperate for new schools and hospitals as well as retrofits and upgrades to older ones.
Palmer said the aging Pattullo Bridge in Surrey is in dire shape and will likely make the list.
Palmer is also curious if they will move forward with the Broadway Extension in Vancouver, light rail in Surrey or both.
"Do they build both rapid transit lines at the same time?" said Palmer. "Or do they first build the one most likely to have more traffic on It which is the Vancouver one. The problem is that they have a lot of members from Surrey and Surrey is really determined to do light rail."
But Palmer explained this has its drawbacks. Light rail too was considered in Coquitlam but after a second look officials decided to spend more for the faster, higher-capacity SkyTrain system.