Estimates Debate: Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Ministry

MLA Sonia Furstenau

Transcript 6CSC:1655, 6CSC:1735-1750, 6CSC:1805-1810

S. Furstenau: I'm delighted to have our chance up here. Thanks to the opposition members and the ministers for the interesting discussion that has unfolded this afternoon.

I'm going to move back to B.C. Hydro. We have some questions. I have some questions on Site C, and then my colleague is going to pick up on some questions of his own.

As we know, Site C was already over budget and over schedule in 2017, as determined in the independent report of the BCUC. We're in this time of…. Hopefully, we'll be looking at a time of economic recovery ahead, and we're wondering about the top priorities of government in that.

The BCUC panel found that it is unlikely that Site C will be completed on schedule by 2024 and even that construction costs could escalate beyond the costs, already nearly doubled, that were initially predicted, from $6.6 billion to $10.7 billion. The overrun of expenses and the mounting delays will likely have a pretty significant impact on British Columbia ratepayers.

My question for the minister. To start with, could he provide an update on the current projected cost of construction for the Site C dam and whether COVID-19 has delayed the schedule for construction? How has COVID-19 impacted the budget for construction?

Hon. B. Ralston: Thank you very much to the member for the question. I appreciate the member giving an indication of the direction of the questions in advance of being here this afternoon.

Prior to COVID-19, it was acknowledged that the project was already managing significant financial pressures. Those are due to a number of factors. Let me list some of them. Additional scope and design enhancements to the foundations of the structures on the right bank. Amendments to the main civil works contract. Increased costs associated with reservoir clearing, transmission line construction and highway realignment work. Additional labour resource requirements. First Nations treaty infringement claims and an injunction application. And, probably not surprising, pandemic-related delays will present further cost pressures on the budget.

As the evolution of the pandemic is uncertain and the date of resolution is unknown — I think that's been the subject of some earlier debate this afternoon — there is cost, and the schedule impact scenarios continue to be assessed and refined.

S. Furstenau: No specific figures there. I guess I'll just go back to the original question. Does the minister have, taking into account all of these reasons for expanded cost…? Is there a new update on the projected overall cost of this project?

The Chair: I recognize the member for Kootenay East on a point of order.

T. Shypitka: Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to call a point of order on the proceedings that just happened, just recently. The Chair recognized the member for Cowichan Valley, although the member from North Thompson wasn't done yet. The Chair also recognized that taking a break or offering the member one more question — in almost an attempt to speed him up or get his questions done. I'd like to raise that concern.

The Chair: Thank you, Member. My understanding was there was an agreement between the official opposition and the Third Party. I let the member ask additional questions on top of the time that you had already arranged. In the interest of making sure that everyone gets opportunities to ask questions, I skipped the break so that people could continue to ask questions and get all the questions they want in.

As per your agreement, I'll let the questioning continue. Happy to get the member in once the time is up.

T. Shypitka: Can I respond, Chair?

The Chair: Yes, Member for Kootenay East. Go ahead.

T. Shypitka: Well, we've all made some reconsiderations here on the length of the questioning or the length of the non-answers that we're receiving, and we've had to ask questions multiple times. It has pushed a lot of our members out of discussions for today. We have to submit those questions now because of the time. It's been taking so long to get any kind of answer from the minister on multiple questions that we've asked, whether it was on B.C. Hydro, through the member for Shuswap or myself….

This has created a lengthy process here today — a very frustrating one, I might add. So I just wanted to say that I think that it's a little unfair.

The Chair: Thank you, Member. The estimates will continue. The member will have a continued opportunity to ask questions. Again, I will remind the member that you had made arrangements. I assumed there was an agreement. So now I will go on to recognize members as their hands come up, and I will honour the agreement unless I hear otherwise from the member for Kootenay East. Thank you for raising your concern.

T. Shypitka: I'm sorry, Chair. You're waiting for a response?

The Chair: No, I'm not waiting for a response. Unless you have anything else, member for Kootenay East?

T. Shypitka: No.

Hon. B. Ralston: I thank the member for the question. The public budget, at this point, is $10.7 billion. Obviously, there's…. With COVID, there was a ramping down of the project and then a return, ramping back up. But the uncertainty due to COVID continues. The next major milestone in the project is the river diversion that's anticipated. And although not entirely certain, I think everyone's pretty confident that it will be reached. In September…. After river diversion takes place, then there will be a revisiting of the budget in the fall. But until then, that won't be taking place.

S. Furstenau: Just to clarify with the member for Kootenay East, we had been both in discussion with staff from his offices as well as with the other critics that the member for Kamloops–North Thompson was ceding the floor and had sent me a note indicating so. So I'm not sure about the confusion, but we have been working very hard. There are two of us and a very limited staff, and we work very hard to set out times for this and to be available and ask our questions. So I appreciate that opportunity now to continue.

I'm just going to ask one more question on Site C, and then I'll hand it over to my colleague to ask some questions about our energy imports and exports. The list of reasons why there are delays and overruns in costs seems pretty significant. And as the minister indicates, COVID-19 is also going to exacerbate the growing costs of this project.

When we look to the other side of the country in Muskrat Falls and the state of the project out there, a very similar major dam project that had some pretty serious controversies, as has Site C here…. And many of the things that the minister has outlined were issues that had been raised by those who had had serious concerns about Site C, including our caucus.

I guess this is more of a question just for the minister. Is there a point at which there's a level of cost that is reached that makes this project unsustainable economically, as it is unsustainable environmentally? We know that to be. At what point do the overruns of cost become something that makes this project unsustainable?

Hon. B. Ralston: I appreciate the member's question. Thank you for the question. I too am concerned about the cost of the project, but I'm convinced that every reasonable effort to mitigate the cost of the project is being taken. So I think the concern is legitimate, but also the efforts to contain the costs and….

Certainly, there have been some unexpected costs due to COVID in terms of its impact on the schedule, which have obviously had some financial impact. Those will be assessed in the fall. But certainly, every reasonable effort to contain the costs is being taken