With no alternatives, Site C project now John Horgan's to wear

Alternative would be to send the $6 billion spent and another $4 billion down the chute

On Friday, John Horgan had his Justin Trudeau moment.

That’s the same moment when Trudeau determined not only that the TransMountain pipeline was an important energy asset, no matter his cabinet and caucus skepticism, but that he would have to own it to keep it from falling apart. 

Horgan certainly has many doubters in his political midst on the Site C Hydroelectric Project – or as it’s now renamed, the Site C Clean Energy Project – but made the lemonade out of whatever lemons that might be the problem. 

Moreover, on Friday it became his to wear, just as TransMountain belongs (seemingly with no end) to the prime minister.

The price tag is larger. The timeline is longer. The uncertainty on the geotechnical issues are, well, nothing you or I could fix this evening. But on we go with no turning back, because to turn back Friday would be to send the $6 billion spent and another $4 billion down the chute along with needless displacement and environmental disruption. 

Reminds me of when I once started painting a wall and realized two-thirds of the way through that I didn’t particularly like the colour. But I could live with it. 

Horgan can live with Site C because the alternatives are odious – maybe even as odious as that paint colour – for a government that does not need more unpleasant economic news in this mandate. Of all the things it can ill-afford is the public perception it cannot manage the books. In this case, the experts say BC Hydro rates would jump ($216 a year, he says) and there would be nothing to show for it except a lost Triple-A credit rating from the coughing and wheezing of a 12-figure addition to the debt.

The new projected cost is $16 billion. The eventual cost is only worth guesswork, but like most infrastructure projects, delivery under budget is a fluke – just ask the people of Labrador, where the Muskrat Falls project was a financial runaway train and an inquiry concluded that, hey, that’s the norm. 

There are now four, not three years of work ahead to make it operational. Then, Horgan says, we can sit back for 100 years and savour the savings. Can’t wait to do that.

And yes, there will be a short- to medium-term premium for customers to pay – a 14.5% jump between 2025 and 2029, subject to what the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC) determines is our payment plan. On that, I can wait. 

Horgan operates with reasonable leverage in this no-turning-back call, in the equivalent of the political room’s safe space. He can, as he did, disavow the original decision. He can, as he did, hold his nose and declare the future is still fairly sunny. 

After all, who is going to oppose him politically? The BC Liberals who created it? The Greens who are no longer in a minority covenant to govern? His own caucus? No, no, no. There might be plenty of public opposition, but it has no immediate political clout. 

One thing he cannot do is claim superb governance by BC Hydro of the project in his time as premier. The report that spurred his final decision announcement Friday by Peter Milburn pointed to oversight issues galore, including a board that "could have done a much better job of anticipating risks, quantifying the range of risks, tracking the effectiveness of risk mitigation, or communicating risks."

Even if the next election fells the NDP for the Greens, by then they’ll be scheduling the ribbon-cuttings, unless these technical challenges on the right bank of the Peace River are protracted and cannot be resolved by then to ensure the safety of the spillway and generating station.

Let’s cross that white elephant when we get to it. Meantime, we’re leaving the lights on – and with all this electricity we’ll receive, it seems we can do that at will.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.