Large hydro dams aren't green - they actually drive climate change

Let’s quit pretending dams like Site C are good for the climate

Large hydro dams aren't green - they actually drive climate change
BC’s WAC Bennett Dam (Photo: Damien Gillis)

There are many good reasons not to build Site C Dam: destruction of farmland and wildlife habitat, the violation of First Nations’ rights, the likely $15 Billion tab for taxpayers, and the fact that we simply don’t need the power. But you can add one very important item to the list: CLIMATE.

Hydro full of hot air

I raise this now because we have climate on the brain with the Paris talks and because it’s the final fig leaf clung to by defenders of this bogus project. People like BC Hydro’s Siobhan Jackson – Environmental and Community Mitigation Manager for Site C – perpetuate the myth that hydro dams, while ecologically devastating, are somehow “clean”. In a recent op-ed in the Vancouver Sun, Jackson acknowledged, then quickly downplayed the GHGs that would be produced by the project.

“Site C, after an initial burst of expenditure, would lock in low rates for many decades, and would produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than any source save nuclear,” she says. From a strictly GHG perspective dams may be better than coal. But there are two big problems with this argument.

Inflating demand to justify Site C

First, it’s a false dichotomy. Hydro’s own numbers, recently submitted to the BC Utilities Commission, show we won’t need the electricity from Site C until at least 2029 – unless we use it to power the cooling of gas into LNG, in which case the climate rationale just went right out the window, since even a few LNG plants would require a massive ramping up of fracked natural gas in northeast BC, which is a huge climate problem. Jackson contradicts her own people, repeating the old saw that we will simply need more power – 40% in 20 years – a figure pulled straight from between her butt cheeks.

The truth is Hydro has always and severely overestimated future power demands, as we have repeatedly demonstrated in these pages. The fact is we’re using essentially the same amount of electricity today in BC as we did at the turn of the millennium, despite population increases and new gadgetry (which is increasingly efficient).

So the choice between flooding another 80 km of the Peace Valley for a third hydro dam and relying on coal-fired energy is an absolutely false one. Here’s what is true: Site C is a lot worse for the environment than the very real alternative of continued conservation.

Ignoring the latest science

The other big problem with Jackson’s argument is it soft-pedals the serious climate impacts of Hydro dams. She claims the research and methodology relied on by Hydro to measure Site C’s GHG footprint is top-notch. I beg to differ. New research is showing that dams produce far more greenhouse gases than previously thought.

For instance, this peer-reviewed study in Science Daily notes:

[quote]Researchers have documented an underappreciated suite of players in global warming: dams, the water reservoirs behind them, and surges of greenhouse gases as water levels go up and down. In separate studies, researchers saw methane levels jump 20- and 36-fold during drawdowns.[/quote]

Methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2 – 86 times worse, in fact, over a 20-year period, according to Dr. Robert Howarth from Cornell University, a globally acknowledged expert on the subject. This is the same reason fracking is so bad for the climate – pure “natural gas” is methane and far more of it leaks into the atmosphere during the extraction, treatment and piping processes than we once thought. We call these “fugitive methane emissions”. The unnatural water bodies we call dam reservoirs accumulate dead biomass from all those trees cut down and hillsides unearthed, which in turn rots and emits the same methane into the atmosphere, producing serious GHGs over the entire life of a project.

This explains why a study in the journal Water, Air and Soil Pollution determined that “one Amazonian dam, Tucurui, was once calculated to have greater emissions than Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and among the 10 most populous in the world,” as this 2013 story on Brazil’s exploding carbon footprint explains.

A whole lot of concrete

This is, of course, on top of the enormous emissions associated with construction, from all that concrete poured and heavy machinery operating for a decade. Ms. Jackson acknowledges this as an “initial burst of expenditure” (if you can call ten years of construction “initial”, that is). In a particularly insightful article on the subject in EcoWatch, author Gary Wocker notes:

[quote]For one medium-sized dam project proposed for the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado, it is estimated that the construction would emit 218,000 metric tons CO2-equivalents which equals the emissions from almost 46,000 automobiles on the road for one year. Larger dams, such as Hoover Dam which contains 4.36 million cubic yards of concrete, would have exponentially higher climate change impacts from construction. The largest hydro-electric dam on the planet—the Three Gorges Dam in China—contains 27.15 million cubic meters of cement.[/quote]

Lesser of two evils

So Jackson and co. breeze by the ten-year construction phase, instead landing on the argument that Site C will have a smaller reservoir than the existing Williston, therefore fewer GHGs from dead biomass by comparison. Okay – but that’s a lesser of two evils argument. The important question is not how many GHGs Site C will produce compared to larger reservoirs, but rather how it would fare compared with other renewable technologies; and, even more importantly, do we even need it at all? Since the answer to that is “no”, the whole conversation is moot.

Even if we did need more power in 30 years, the technologies available will be exponentially better and cheaper, so what’s the rush to plunk down $15 billion of your scarce tax dollars now and destroy a whole valley in the process? Moreover, the climate crisis is such that adding a comparatively small degree of new emissions to existing ones is no longer an acceptable argument. We need to be going in the opposite direction – i.e. cutting emissions and total energy consumption. These are things that our new Prime Minister – as he jostles with provinces like ours over their climate plans and the loopholes they build into them – would do well to bear in mind as he’s petitioned to reconsider federal permits for the project issued by his predecessor. Site C has no place in Mr. Trudeau’s federal energy strategy.

Nothing “Clean” about Site C

Calling an 80 km-long dam that will flood or disturb 30,000 acres of some of the best farmland we have left in Canada, contaminate fish with absolutely toxic levels of mercury for decades to come, destroy some of the best remaining wildlife habitat in an already industrially-devastated region and produce massive greenhouse gas emissions hardly qualifies this as a “clean energy project.”

Make what arguments you will for Site C, Ms. Jackson, Premier Clark. Tell us it will produce construction jobs (many of which are already going to Albertans). Try to convince us that awarding mega-contracts to your construction pals and political backers will be good for the whole BC economy. But don’t try to dupe British Columbians into believing that Site C Dam is somehow a “climate solution”.

That’s just a whole lot of hot air.


About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

12 thoughts on “Let’s quit pretending dams like Site C are good for the climate

  1. It’s all about the massive and growing debt we carry. They need the economy to grow, endlessly, in order to sustain the endlessly growing debt. That’s why they say demand for power in BC will grow endlessly. The whole concept of endless growth is mathematically impossible.

  2. Additionally, there was no consideration of the carbon sequestering values of the over 57,000 acres of farm and forested land that would be impacted by this unnecessary project.

  3. Maybe the dam has to do with climate change and managing water supply in our glacier free future.

    1. Robert Taylor, That would be a possibility. It does assume that Hydro and our Government have some measure of foresight which I don’t imagine is true. But there are a couple of problems with the assumption.

      The first is that we don’t know whether we will need to mange water better than we already do in a Glaciar free future. If we get less or the same amount of precipitation then existing reservoirs will be adequate to even out the stream flows. If we get more precipitation and it doesn’t form ice in the mountains then we might be better off with smaller, more appropriate non-storage hydro facilities closer to the demand.

  4. Keep us the good work, I love my dose of your and Rafe’s common sense. Without the environment, clean water, air, nature, there is no point in any “jobs”. Yes, the true energy needs in 30 or more years will likely be a lot less than has been needed historically as every day smarter people than those in our present government are developing new technologies that take less energy. Also a lot of young people are seeing the waste that has been created with the way we have been living with our disposable ways and are quite horrified and don’t want any part of that. We need governments that recognize that the way we have been developing energy and destroying habitat for humans, wildlife and marine life is the road to a pretty crappy planet. It is true, mankind needs every part of nature to survive, yet nothing in nature requires mankind. Without us getting things all messed up, nature would thrive. And yes, it is the environment, Stupid…

  5. I listened to your interview on radio last night Damien and finally felt a win .
    I look forward to you further making sense of our senseless government exploits . I did not vote this federal election as the whole system is corrupt spending fiscally what we don’t have .

    Shall “we” never learn? Debt and leverage, the possible two-headed monster. This is déjà vu and somehow the human animal does not recognize that the ending will again be pain. When? It is hard to reckon but when interest rates rise, the ability for many to pay their debts will become illusion. Markets will not be happy and it’s people will see the emperor has no clothes again . Credit crisis governments need to live within their means as companies and consumers do .

  6. Well, I can’t scorn Puff’n’Stuff for flunking out of college three times… I didn’t even go. But I do scorn her for being so butt-stupid stubborn. She is going to try to shove this Site C boondoggle down our throats come hell or high water. Maybe she wants to see her name inscribed in concrete, “The Christie Clark Dam”. After all, it worked for WAC Bennett and why should he be the only one so immortalized.

    The waste of agricultural land is a crime against humanity. What it will do to the wildlife is a crime against nature.

    Those pushing for this stupidity should be hosted in a rubber room until they can get well and stop blethering such total bullshyte.

  7. We got rid of harper perhaps just in (hee hee) the nick of time but another two years of CC will surely seal the lid on our worst nightmares.

    We need help from beyond our borders to expose this paper mache puppet for the evil and dangerous clown she really is and with her ongoing silly pronouncements in Paris about being a leader in climate responsibility hopefully some clued in reporter or the intrepid Elizabeth May will be the agent of our salvation.

    I won’t hold my breath but somethings gotta give.

  8. Siabhon is talking crap. There can be no doubt about that except possibly in her own head and in the heads of others, like Clark and Bennett, who haven’t the wherewithal to figure things out for themselves. That gives us two options, they actually believe their own propaganda, and are spouting it because they can’t face finding themselves wrong, or they have too much hutzpah for their own good, and they are going to try and bluff their way through this in the faith of their ability to sway the electorate.

    That latter has got to remind you of a recently departed prime minister, and a very failed time in political power. Our Premier has made some startling comments lately such as suggesting that we are better off without Steve because the environmental priorities of her province have been compromised. That sounds like someone doing some pretty significant spin doctoring which makes me think she recognizes that an arrogant approach to voters might not be the best bet. That could be a good thing.

    But I think it is the former, they belief this stuff about the benefit of large hydro dams to the province. Odd eh? But let me suggest that they may have had a shell build up slowly around themselves, a wall of yes men, of right wing rhetoric, of bureaucratic obeisance, of technocratic bafflegab, that isn’t letting new information through, or anything dealing with economic or environmental/social implications of their pet project. No excuse of course but we have seen it before. It is too bad, because this is new information, valid and unconsidered in decision making.

    There is quite a bit that hasn’t been properly considered and now would be a good time for the BC government to give back to the BC Utilities Commission and the Agricultural Land Reserve their ability to look at projects that stand to affect our future to the extent that site C does.

  9. Gee, Damien, you’re not saying that Christy and the Gumshoe don’t know what they’re doing, are you? Heaven forfend!
    Look at the track record. Based upon Christy’s training gleaned from flunking out of college three times and the Gumshoe’s experience handing out speeding tickets they mastered the intricacies of Energy overnight and have spent 5 years dealing with international crooks, fooling hell out of them all the way, conning them into giving us 22 LNG plants with huge markets all over the world! You must have missed it Damien – we’re about to pay off all our debts and have a trillion – or maybe 100 trillion – in a Prosperity Fund. We’re about to be on easy street?
    Thanks to Christy and the Gumshoe, we British Columbians will soon be weaned off sentimental environmentalism and re-industrialize Howe Sound, have pipelines bursting (literally) through the Great Bear Rain Forest, LNG plants which,after all, are damn near as clean as coal, in every nook and cranny, to say nothing of barge after barge of coal sailng down the Fraser River.
    And you have the cheek to criticize Christy and the Gumshoe for smashing up a few acres of farmland, upsetting a few natives and putting a teensy bit of bad stuff in the atmosphere when we have all that money in the Prosperity Fund (pretty soon they tell us),

    For shame, this is called progress, just like triple deleting emails that are just embarrassig to two fine public servants like Christy and the Gumshoe!

    Get with it, Damien – as all can see, the Province is in the very best of hands!

    1. Rafe, You left out the Mt Polley dam.
      Since the burst dam has now been determined to be “no non compliance issues”
      ( Orwellian doublespeak for “get off scot free”). The people in charge also earn a “get out of jail free” with the new information that “there are NO adminsitrative laws” governing this type of incident……..nice.

      Build a tailings pond full of toxic goo. Ignore written and verbal warnings from your staff. Allow a dam to fail. Carry on.

      We could save the taxpayers billions by letting Imperial Metals build an earthen dam for BC Hydro on the Peace river site.
      If it bursts, its no ones fault and the dam would be gone.
      A win win for jobs, the environment and the company that has to do the clean up!

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