B.C. appoints 'special adviser' to Site C after BC Hydro reports serious cost, schedule concerns

Utility no longer confident it can meet completion deadline

The B.C. provincial government has appointed a new “special adviser” to provide “fresh eyes” on Site C after BC Hydro expressed serious concerns with the dam project’s schedule and budget earlier this morning.

At a press briefing today, B.C. energy, mines and petroleum resources minister Bruce Ralston said the province has appointed former deputy finance minister Peter Milburn as the adviser, who is now tasked with reporting his findings on the project in the fall.

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The announcement comes after BC Hydro filed its latest Site C progress report with the B.C. Utilities Commission, which noted the company is no longer confident it can hit the original late-2023 date for the dam's first generating unit to go into service - or the 2024 planned date for the whole project's final in-service date.

Despite that, Ralston said abandoning the project - a key piece of the energy infrastructure plan to energize industrial development in Northern B.C., including facilitating the operation of LNG Canada's planned project for liquefied natural gas - is not an option.

On that topic, Ralston laid the blame directly on the previous Liberals government, who, Ralston said, explicitly pushed Site C "past the point of no return."

"When we [the NDP] came into government in 2017, we had a very serious discussion about the project and made the decision to go forward," Ralston said. "So I'm not sure [dropping Site C] is a realistic alternative. I will await the advice of Mr. Milburn on that."

Site C has been among the most hotly debated infrastructure projects in B.C. in recent years due to its scale, cost, potential economic benefits and negative environment impact. Ralston said the current government had addressed a number of "cost pressures" in the project going forward prior to March, but the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the problem as BC Hydro scaled down work on Site C to follow provincial health guidelines.

Ralston did note that BC Hydro remains on-track to achieve river diversion - a major milestone in determining the project's eventual in-service date - by this fall. But he added he is "very concerned" about BC Hydro's latest report on cost and scheduling, and that is the main reason he has appointed Milburn to his new post.

"We will see where that takes us," Ralston said.

The minister did note that other projects such as LNG Canada has not reported being endangered by the lack of certainty at Site C (despite also scaling back work on their sites), adding that - at last check - the LNG project is still on-track to capitalize on the province's CleanBC plan to provide low-emissions energy to the public.

"I think we can all appreciate that COVID-19 has created challenges that none of us could have foreseen a few months ago," he said. "These reports provide a first glimpse of how COVID-19 has caused uncertainty with the project's schedule, as well as adding cost pressures to its budget."

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