Island News & Views
Go to Site Index See "Island News & Views" main page
General · 12th July 2009
Deb Cowper
The Vancouver Sun
11 Jul 2009

Bute Inlet, a long and deep fiord 300 kilometres north of Vancouver, is famous for many things. Some call it “Canada’s Himalayas” because of the striking glacier-covered mountain slopes and temperate rainforest. Loggers know it as a place where nature can’t be tamed, where avalanches and rockslides tear down mountainsides and mini-tornados funnel down the fiord in legendary winter storms. Fishers count five kinds of salmon in the emerald inlet. Mountaineers eye Mount Waddington, the highest peak entirely in British Columbia, near the Homathko Icefield which feeds the inlet with streams of gravel-studded water.

For Sierra Club BC, Bute Inlet was a place we’d heard much about, yet didn’t know at all. In the news, Bute has become synonymous with a controversial power proposal to harness over 1,000 megawatts of electricity from 17high elevation creeks and rivers and march it over the mountains to the electrical grid.

Last week, Sierra Club staff and volunteers boated up the 75-kilometre inlet, and travelled along overgrown logging roads to remote river valleys that could soon house turbines and transmission lines. We wanted a first-hand view of the scope of the development owned by Plutonic Power Corp and its partner General Electric — a controversial proposal that spurred more than 250 Quadra Island residents to overflow a local hall on a Sunday morning in February to voice objections to the project.

In a “green power” gold rush invisible to most of us, the provincial government has granted more than 130 water-for-power licences. Close to 600 more applications are pending — primarily placeholders for corporations laying claim to B.C.’s public rivers for future development.

Run-of-river proposals are touted as “green power” because, like 90 per cent of B.C.’s clean hydro power, once infrastructure is in place they are largely carbon-neutral. But this green power moniker raises many difficult questions that challenge the environmental community and all British Columbians.

Do we carve up a wilderness area — in Bute’s case one that encompasses the southern most range of B.C.’s coastal grizzlies, endangered marbled murrelet habitat and all five species of B. C. salmon — to produce power for export in an attempt to slow our rapid ascent to global warming’s tipping point?

How do we calculate the carbon footprint of producing and shipping turbines and penstock from Austria and China, ferrying work crews in and out by helicopters and airplanes and leaving a 100-metre-wide swath of felled trees to release their carbon contents into the atmosphere beside transmission lines channelling “carbon-neutral” power?

In the name of green power, do we compromise or destroy burgeoning ecotourism ventures that create sustainable jobs and infuse money into the local economy?

The sheer scale of Plutonic’s proposal warrants questions and concern. It is 33 times larger than the 30-megawatt limit set by the state of California’s renewable energy bill for run-of-river hydroelectric power. In addition to the 17 stream diversions and 445 kilometres of transmission lines, the project will involve 314 kilometres of roads, 142 bridges, 16 powerhouses, and a substation — all this in a wilderness area so visually stunning that Beautiful British Columbia magazine recently named a trip to Bute Inlet one of “50 things to do before you die.”

The Homathko logging camp, where we stayed at Bute’s eastern tip, is equipped with its own run-of-river project that generates more than enough electricity to fuel a plethora of power equipment and feed and house 30 people. We climbed uphill to see the waterfall source of the camp’s abundant electrical supply, and couldn’t help but note that this small scale “run of river” is a non-invasive harnessing of water tumbling downhill.

As B.C. speeds up development of cleaner, carbon-neutral energy, we need a well-thought, comprehensive and publicly acceptable template to assess the full environmental footprint of new power proposals.

• Is the proposed development truly “green” when its impacts on habitat, species and irreplaceable ecosystems and landscapes are considered? Is a mix of additional alternatives, including wind and solar, less environmentally destructive?

• What is the “full carbon accounting” when emissions caused by construction and maintenance are factored in?

• What is the appropriate scale of a “green power” project — 1,000 megawatts such as Bute or much smaller, like California’s limit of 30 megawatts?

• What is the cumulative impact of dozens of power projects on a watershed?

• Will the new power replace dirty coal or natural gas fired generation, or will it be exported with no carbon reduction strings attached?

Rights to use our rivers and public land must be granted through open public processes, not sacrificed by provincial policies that transfer accountability from the public to shareholders and allow corporate claims of commercial confidentiality to trump our freedom of information laws.

Bill 30, passed by the B.C. government in 2006, removes input and planning approval from local governments and communities during provincial assessment of proposed water-for-power projects.

Our water as well as our atmosphere is a common asset, and we need to ensure public benefit from its use. We must develop green energy, but in a way that retains the right of B.C. to make decisions in the public interest with political accountability.

We can’t run the risk of having those decisions blocked by investor rights clauses in trade agreements. We can’t afford to silence local voices, and we can’t afford to extinguish open and broad-based public discussion about how best to extricate ourselves from our carbon quagmire.

George Heyman is executive director of Sierra Club BC. Sarah Cox is the organization’s policy and campaigns adviser.