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Trudeau privatization bank could finance Site C transmission line, spur deal for Trans Mountain pipeline approval

Bulldozer plowing gravel and dirt from a Peace River island into the river. Site C construction site, June 2015. Photo by Garth Lenz.

The Trudeau government appears open to helping to finance a hydro-transmission line – a power line that could cross many rivers now left unprotected by the Navigation Protection Act – from the Site C dam in Treaty 8 territory in northeastern British Columbia to Alberta through its new infrastructure privatization bank.

Approaching this with a positive spin, iPolitics reports, “The Trudeau government intends to use its new infrastructure bank to finance a ‘nation-building effort’ to build clean electricity systems between provinces and territories. …For instance, [former World Trade Organization chairman] Sergio Marchi, [now] president of the Canadian Electricity Association, said it could finance the infrastructure needed for British Columbia to transmit its abundant hydro power to Alberta, which is trying to shift off coal-fired electricity, or for Manitoba to transmit its hydro to Saskatchewan, which gets more than 40 per cent of its energy from coal-fired power plants.”

The Vancouver Sun adds, “The Trudeau government has sent a ‘quite positive’ signal that it is prepared to help finance a new transmission link to ship clean B.C. hydroelectric power to Alberta, according to provincial energy minister Bill Bennett. A federal loan guarantee wouldn’t likely be of great benefit for B.C. Hydro, he noted, since the utility and the province can both borrow at cheap rates due to the province’s strong credit rating. But the notion of a direct federal contribution, perhaps through a private-public partnership, could be a deal-maker.”

That article notes, “[Alberta premier Rachel] Notley had previously said her government wouldn’t bite on the transmission line idea unless [British Columbia premier Christy Clark] showed more openness to her plea for an oilsands pipeline to the West Coast. Bennett wouldn’t speculate on whether Morneau’s apparent reference to the B.C.-Alberta project is linked to an appeal for B.C.’s support for an oilsands pipeline.”

The Financial Post has previously reported, “[Premier Clark has] made an unexpected proposal to export Site C power to Alberta and asked for $1 billion in federal government aid [for transmission lines] to better connect the two provinces’ electricity systems. Alberta has said it won’t buy B.C.’s power unless it can get bitumen pipelines [the Trans Mountain or Northern Gateway pipelines] to the B.C. coast — something its western neighbour has given it a lot of grief over. But if the two provinces and the federal government can pull off an agreement, the result could be a grand bargain that gives Ottawa more green energy, Alberta its pipelines and B.C. its dam.”

The Site C dam would add 150,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions to B.C.’s carbon footprint, the equivalent of putting 27,000 additional cars on the road each year. The 890,000 barrel per day Kinder Morgan tar sands pipeline would produce an estimated 270 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over a 35-year period.

The Harper government’s C-38 omnibus bill removed power lines and pipelines from provisions of the Navigable Waters Protection Act, while C-45 severely reduce the scope of the rivers and lakes covered by the Act. During the October 2015 federal election, the Liberals criticized the Harper government’s “elimination of the Navigable Waters Protection Act” and promised to “review these changes, restore lost protections, and incorporate more modern safeguards”. Now Transport minister Marc Garneau says, “Some of the changes that were made we may end up saying they’re reasonable, but some of them we definitely will change.”

This equivocation may be because, as The Globe and Mail reports, “The Liberal government is feeling pressure from industry over a campaign pledge to restore regulations surrounding project permits and environmental assessments.” The Hill Times has reported that the groups opposing changes to the Navigation Protection Act could include Marchi’s Canadian Electricity Association.

The Council of Canadians has been calling on the Trudeau government to restore and enhance protections for every lake and every river in this country. We have also called for public financing for public infrastructure projects, a commitment to a 100 per cent clean energy economy by 2050, and the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, notably the key provision on the right to free, prior and informed consent.

We oppose the privatization bank. CUPE economist Toby Sanger points out, “Ottawa can now borrow at 0.6 per cent over a year and issue 30-year bonds at 1.8 per cent, with provinces a percentage point higher. Long-term borrowing rates have never been this low. Meanwhile large private infrastructure investors expect ‘stable, predictable returns in the 7 to 9 per cent range’.” That means higher private financing costs, lower public revenues, higher user fees, and cuts to workers wages and benefits. And we have opposed the Trans Mountain pipeline and critiqued major dam projects, including the Muskrat Falls dam, for their destruction of rivers, the greenhouse gas emissions they produce, and for violations of Indigenous rights.

To read Council of Canadians water campaigner Emma Lui’s 28-page report Every Lake, Every River: Restoring the Navigable Waters Protection Act, please click here.