The BC Transmission Corporation (BCTC) ran open houses last month regarding a proposed 287 kV power line along Highway 37 to Bob Quinn Lake. BCTC's approach to public consultation raises serious questions about whether BCTC is truly considering the needs of northern communities, and forces us to grapple with the challenge of defining an appropriate scale for northern development.
BCTC touts the power line as a way to supply reliable power for communities and for economic development, connect new sources of renewable power to the B.C. grid and reduce northern communities' reliance on polluting diesel generators. These are worthy objectives.
However, BCTC's open house in Smithers left us with more questions than answers. Who is this power intended to benefit? Will it promote new sources of renewable power? Will the line result in decreased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?
First, on the question of reliable power for communities: Dease Lake is currently powered by local small hydro. The 287 kV line falls over 100 kilometres short of Iskut, and even further from remote Telegraph Creek. With an approximate cost of $350 million, this line is big enough to service a city of 150,000 people. The line is dramatically out of proportion with the needs of residents along the route.
The main purpose of this line is clearly to support the expansion of mining activity in the region, something BCTC should be more transparent about. While mines bring jobs and development to northern communities, the impacts are not always benign and positive. What are the environmental, social and economic impacts of this scale of development? This question must be addressed to the satisfaction of First Nations and northerners generally. Yet recent events in Stikine Country suggest there is little consensus on northern mining projects, as local residents are fiercely opposed to some of the proposed mines.
On the second issue of new sources of renewable power: the Forrest Kerr hydro project on the Iskut River, owned by NovaGold, is the only major proposal in the works. The project - including a 138 kV line to Meziadin Junction - are approved, and will supply more than enough power to the Galore Creek Mine. Whether other renewable energy projects are in the works remains unclear, as does the question of whether a 287 kV line will encourage or hinder them. The size of BCTC's proposed power line appears to have little to do with encouraging renewable sources and a lot to do with subsidizing power to the mining industry.
On the third issue, the Pembina Institute completely supports efforts to decrease reliance on diesel power generation, particularly now that the B.C. government has committed to aggressive GHG emission reduction targets. However, a massive power line ending at Bob Quinn Lake will not help Iskut and Telegraph Creek. If reducing community emissions is really a goal, there are more practical and sustainable ways to do it.
Finally, the power line is unlikely to result in decreased GHG emissions from northwest B.C. Rather, it would enable more mines to be built. The five projects currently slated for environmental review all require diesel for hauling rock and processed ore. If one accounts for the "carbon footprint" of these mines, GHG emissions from the region are likely to go up.
Two years ago, the issue for BCTC was what size of line to develop. This is the question that BCTC should now be asking the public. BCTC has shelved its earlier proposal for a moderate sized 138 kV line in favour of this overpowering proposal. The larger line is not consistent with the needs of northerners, unless all northerners want to see massive industrial development along this relatively untrammeled part of beautiful B.C.
What is an appropriate scale of development? A scale that provides jobs and community benefits through mining development while protecting habitat for fish and wildlife, and balancing the protection of this beautiful landscape.
B.C. environmental organizations working in the north have been cautiously supportive of the Galore Creek mine proposal since the developer decided not to build a road along the Stikine River. This was a balanced decision. If BCTC's 287 kV proposal goes ahead, that balance will be lost. We believe that the scale of development permitted by this power line would place the interests of mining companies well ahead of the needs of communities.
Greg Brown is the Northern B.C. Program Coordinator with the Pembina Institute based in Smithers, B.C. For more information on the Institute, visit www.pembina.org.