There's a part of government that is spending gargantuan amounts of money, yet operates beyond the scrutiny normally applied to such operations.
That would be B.C. Hydro, the Crown corporation that has embarked on a multi-billion (yes, BILLION) dollar spending program that dwarfs pretty much anything else in government when it comes to brick-and-mortar projects.
However, the B.C. government has opted to shut down a three-week hearing by the B.C. Utilities Commission that would have peeled back the covers that have hidden the details of many B.C. Hydro activities.
Although most of the attention arising from that decision has focused on rate increases, the real downside of it is a missed opportunity to shine a light on some very expensive undertakings that will potentially hit taxpayers' pocketbooks in a major way.
B.C. Hydro is planning to spend well in excess of $15 billion in the coming years as it upgrades - and in some instances, expands - its aging network of dams, generation facilities and transmission lines.
Just last week, the Crown Corporation filed for a permit to upgrade the John Hart Generation Station near Campbell River. That project alone will cost more than $1.3 billion, but it's far from being the only expensive project on the drawing board.
There's the $700-million transmission line between the Interior and Metro Vancouver, set for completion in late 2015. The Northwest transmission line will cost more than $560 million, and the Ruskin Dam upgrade is pegged at $780 million.
Then there's the controversial smart meter program, which is budgeted at $930 million and may cost even more.
Want more? Well, the granddaddy of them all is the proposed Site C dam project on the Peace River. The cost for this megaproject could exceed a whopping $8 billion if it ever gets built.
As an example of the huge amount of money B.C. Hydro throws around, consider this: we're still a long way from seeing even a shovel in the ground for the Site C project, and the corporation has already spent nearly $300 million on studies, consulting and a re-design of the dam itself.
To put that in perspective, that's the equivalent of building five brand new schools. Or, to look at it another way, it's about the three-quarters the cost of the notorious fast ferries (which at least got built).
Another controversial part of the B.C. Hydro saga is the government's practice of allowing the corporation to "defer" paying for expenses until future years.
The B.C. auditor-general has condemned this practice as masking the true financial health of the corporation. And we're not talking chump change here: John Doyle estimates the total amount of deferred expenses could hit $5 billion a few years for now.
All these things could have been scrutinized by the BCUC had it been given the chance. They likely would have factored in BCUC's analysis of what kind of rate hikes Hydro really needs.
Instead, once again the government has decided to use B.C. Hydro as a political football. It has arbitrarily set a rate hike that bears no relationship to fiscal reality (1.4 per cent next year, when the corporation is spending this kind of money?).
And it is another example of the complete betrayal of a key promise in the B.C. Liberals' 2001 platform: that it would give the utilities commission real independence from political interference.
To be clear, it's hard to argue with much of B.C.
Hydro's spending (hydroelectric dams, after all, need upgrading to be safe). But it would be nice for the taxpayers' peace of mind to know their energy company was doing everything it could to ease the financial burden when it comes to hydro rates.
However, the government has simply said "trust us" on this one.
Don't be surprised if most people take a pass on that.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.
© Copyright 2013