How The Media Failed British Columbians on the Site C Dam

Emma Gilchrist

There is much to debate about Monday’s decision by the B.C. government to move forward with the Site C dam, but one thing is not debatable: construction should never have started without a full review of costs and demand.

Who’s to blame for that review never happening? Of course the BC Liberals are ultimately responsible for charging ahead with the most expensive public project in B.C.’s history without certainty the power was either a) needed or b) the least expensive of the options available.

But those in power will always be prone to making bull-headed decisions in their own political interests. For democracy to function, a healthy news media needs to challenge the powerful and doggedly defend the public interest. In the case of the Site C dam, this simply wasn’t the case.

The first clear sign of trouble with Site C was back in October 2014 when the environmental review panel appointed by the provincial and federal governments issued its report. The panel didn’t recommend for or against the project, but it did say it couldn’t confirm Site C’s power would be needed on the timeline presented by BC Hydro. This is a pretty major red flag.

The joint review panel also said it didn’t have the time or resources to evaluate Site C’s cost or alternatives to the project but made a clear recommendation calling for the B.C. Utilities Commission to review those issues.

The BC Liberal government ignored those recommendations and decided to start building the project anyway. This is the moment when all hell should have broken loose.

Instead, the majority of the traditional media players took a sigh, gave a sideways glance to all those pesky energy experts, environmentalists, Peace Valley landowners and First Nations who were whining about the need for an actual review of costs and demand and moved along.

This complacency is at the rotten core of why B.C. is now faced with the Site C boondoggle, a project for which the cost has escalated nearly 30 per cent in three years and that most certainly was not the most affordable, or least damaging, option to meet B.C.’s electricity needs.

Misreporting Basic Site C Facts 

Not only did the media fail to ask hard questions about this reckless fiscal decision, but many major media outlets repeatedly reported that the environmental review panel had approved the Site C dam. That’s just flat-out wrong.

Unfortunately, this is the tip of the iceberg of the traditional media’s failure to uphold the public interest where the Site C dam is concerned. While the Vancouver Sun was busy waxing poetic about the the Site C work camp (guys! It has a movie theatre, a gym and a pub!) after an exclusive tour with BC Hydro, members of the media should have been filing freedom of information requests to find out whether the project was on time or on budget given tension cracks developing on the south bank.

At DeSmog Canada, throughout three years of intensively covering the Site C dam, we’ve repeatedly been faced with compelling evidence that very few other reporters were paying much attention or ever actually read the joint review panel’s report — let alone asked the right questions about it.

Today, the media continues to display a startling lack of understanding about the nuances of Site C and many other issues, both simple and complex.

On Monday, CTV ran a headline that a decision was forthcoming on the “$8.3 billion” Site C dam. The dam hasn’t been an $8.3 billion project since 2014, when the price jumped to $8.8 billion (see timeline).

The expedited B.C. Utilities Commission review released November 1 indicated costs would likely exceed $10 billion, and warned that it could reach higher than $12.5 billion. The B.C. government’s announcement on Monday said the cost is now pegged at $10.7 billion.

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reported $4 billion has already been spent on the project. Wrong again. The correct figure is $2 billion (while it’s the government’s estimate of project-related debt — $2.1 billion spent and $1.8 billion in potential remediation costs, according to BC Hydro’s unscrutinized assessment — that tallies to $4 billion).

Misrepresenting First Nations Fight Against Site C 

If the province’s largest media outlets can’t get even the basic numbers right, you can probably guess how they fare on reporting on complex issues like First Nations rights.

This week a Vancouver Sun columnist wrote that the “refusal to negotiate” by two First Nations opposed to Site C  “has been faulted by the courts.”

Except the courts have said nothing of the sort. In fact, Canada’s courts have not made any ruling whatsoever on whether the Site C dam even violates the Treaty 8 First Nations’ rights.

Thus far, the First Nations have only taken judicial review cases to court. A judicial review essentially asks the court to review whether proper procedure was followed in making a decision.

The First Nations argued that the federal government hadn’t adequately considered whether it was justified to infringe on their rights given the lack of clear demand for the power. “Justification” is a really key word in aboriginal law.

In January, the federal Court of Appeal upheld a previous court decision that found the federal cabinet wasn’t required to determine if there was any infringement of treaty rights before giving the go-ahead for the dam. Read that last sentence again.

This means the only way for First Nations to have their constitutionally protected rights considered at all is to launch a long and costly civil suit against the government (more on that legal quagmire here).

On Monday, the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations announced they will file that civil suit. Meantime they are asking for an injunction to stop construction. The Globe and Mail referred to this move as an attempt to “drag the matter out in courts,” a statement that displays a startling lack of understanding of treaty rights.

Nobody — not the joint review panel, not the federal government, not the federal courts and not the B.C. Utilities Commission — has even considered whether the infringement of First Nations’ treaty rights is justified. Launching a civil suit is the only option.

Misreading the Shifting Rationale for Site C

After First Nations rights and the cost of the project, the next most contentious aspect of Site C is demand for the power. Here again, the traditional media’s grasp of the complexities has been rather feeble.

The rationale for the project has changed so many times — it’s for California, it’s for 450,000 homes, it’s for LNG, it’s for the oilsands, it’s for electrification of the economy — and every step of the way the media accepted spoonfeeding from BC Hydro.

In its November report, the B.C. Utilities Commission review found BC Hydro’s forecasting of electricity demand “excessively optimistic” and said industrial demand forecasts have been “considerably below industry benchmarks.” On Monday, the NDPgovernment admitted that there will be a “surplus” of power when Site C comes on-line.

Yet the Globe and Mail wrote this week that experts are now suggesting the opposite — that we’re going to need more power than Site C can provide. That may be one expert opinion, but it’s certainly not the prevailing one from months of independent inquiry into the Site C dam.

Over the past three years, expert after expert came forward with warnings about Site C that were ultimately confirmed in the utility commission’s findings. Why was the traditional media so slow to listen? Justine Hunter of the Globe and Mail and Dan Levin of the New York Times paid attention and provided critical, accurate coverage, but why was the majority of the media establishment so missing in action?

There were several early signs that the project was running over budget and behind schedule (as uncovered by DeSmog’s Sarah Cox and ultimately admitted by BC Hydro’s CEO) and yet, for the most part, the media continued to buy BC Hydro’s talking points, despite all evidence to the contrary. It has only been the last few months, as the utilities commission review unfolded, that the media’s tune began to change. But it was too late.

The traditional media’s abdication of its duty to the public on Site C is illustrative of a broader sickness in Canada’s corporate media landscape. At its heart, good journalism should challenge the powerful and stand up for ordinary people. But that takes grit. It takes digging. It takes a dogged commitment. And, frankly, it takes giving a shit. On all of these fronts, British Columbians have been deeply failed.

First Nations and landowners in the Peace Valley will pay the highest price for this failure. But every single British Columbian will also bear the burden, on their pocketbooks and on their consciences, of continuing to build an increasingly costly and destructive mega dam that, with an ounce of oversight, never would have started construction in the first place.

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Image: Premier John Horgan announces Site C construction will proceed on December 11, 2017. Photo: Province of B.C. via Flickr