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.