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Market News

 May 21, 2006
Liberals exercise power so B.C. can have power

 Vancouver, Canada - (By Michael Smyth) - British Columbia is blessed with an abundance of clean hydro-electricity thanks to the vision of legendary premier W.A.C. Bennett, who built dams and harnessed river power.

So you may be surprised to learn we're now a net importer of energy. Up to 15 per cent has to be brought in from outside the province. Faced with a growing population and economy, B.C. must develop new energy sources. The public wants those sources to be clean and non-polluting. But what do you do when local municipalities refuse to approve even those "green" projects that pump zero pollution into the air?

In the case of the B.C. government, you bring the hammer down. That's what the Liberals did with Bill 30, which became law on Thursday. It repeals municipal zoning powers over privately backed electricity projects on Crown land and waterways. As long as the backers of the so-called Independent Power Projects promise to sell the energy to B.C. Hydro, there's nothing a local municipality can do to stop them.

The law has infuriated some municipal politicians, who say the Gordon Campbell government is trampling all over their jurisdiction. And some critics, like former premier Bill Vander Zalm, believe the law is another step to the eventual breakup of Hydro. "I predicted already several years ago that there's a move towards the total privatization of B.C. Hydro," Vander Zalm told me on Nightline B.C. on CKNW.

But Environment Minister Barry Penner says B.C.'s very first small, privately operated power projects were approved when Vander Zalm was premier. And he argues -- again -- that the government has no privatization designs on Hydro. "It's not unusual for Bill Vander Zalm to be completely wrong," Penner said. "I guess he likes conspiracy theories." Penner said it makes economic sense for private companies to plan, build and operate small power projects and sell the electricity to B.C. Hydro. "The problem is, some local governments have been thwarting good, clean power projects," he said. The poster child for Bill 30 is the Ashlu Creek hydro project near Squamish.

The project would divert part of the creek's water flow through a pipe to turn a series of high-tech turbines and generate 49 megawatts of electricity. No dams. No pollution. No greenhouse gases. No problem, right? Wrong. The regional district refused to give zoning approval to the project, pointing to noise, possible impacts on grizzly bears and degraded white-water kayaking conditions.

The government is fed up with municipalities deep-sixing projects like Ashlu Creek. They argue municipalities can't veto other resource extraction on Crown land like forestry, mining and oil and gas. Now small private power projects have also been removed from their grasp. A cynical move? Perhaps. Especially when you consider how much money private power companies donate to the Liberals -- and Campbell's former role as a champion for municipal authority. But the alternative is continuing reliance on dirty, foreign power. Did the government really have a choice? No. Not really.