Thursday, October 1, 2009

Private power: Why we are winning

Anti-IPP rally in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Photo Petra Drncova

I have been on the losing end of enough environmental battles to recognize a potential victory when I see it.

Over the past few months, the raging battle to stop the privatization of British Columbia's rivers has morphed into a distinct win opportunity. Here is why:
  • Today, the public is well aware of the scheme to privatize British Columbia's rivers. A year ago, it was not. This is one of the key accomplishments of the past provincial election which was so disheartening to many. It has put the independent power producer (IPP) issue on the map, defeating the government's objective of privatizing our rivers by stealth.
  • The BC government has already lost the private power battle in rural British Columbia and is in full retreat there. Local communities throughout the province are mad as hell at the scheme to dam and divert their rivers and creeks. They have never forgiven Campbell for Bill 30 which strips municipalities of their zoning authority. The West Kootenays, in particular, are a hotbed of explosive popular discontent over the private power gold rush. People have expressed it loud and clear in public meetings, protests, letters to the editor, public comments, etc. Civil disobedience is the next step in the Kootenays if nothing changes. The government is now in damage control in this region. In all likelihood, it is preparing to kill the highly controversial Glacier/Howser project in an attempt to calm down the population.
  • Over the summer, the BC Utilities Commission slapped the government and its corporate friends in the face by rejecting BC Hydro's 2008 call for power, on the basis that it was "not in the public interest". In spite of fierce astroturf attempts to discredit the BCUC in the public eye, this decision gave a tremendous credibility boost to the claim that IPPs are indeed a corporate scam.
  • The BC Liberals responded to the BCUC's decision by overriding it, which is tantamount to an institutional coup. Indeed, the BCUC is an independent public body and its decisions are meant to be binding. When a government uses its executive power to override a legally binding decision, you know that this government's policy is on shaky ground.
  • About half of this year's BC government throne speech was dedicated to justifying the BC Liberal "green" energy plan. To say the least, Gordon Campbell felt that he had some explaining to do to the public regarding his private power agenda.
  • The BC government has finally admitted the obvious, after years of vociferous denial: that so-called "run-of-river" private power projects are primarily meant for export to California. However, California's existing laws do not recognize our energy as "green". The California lawmakers have refused to amend that legislation in spite of massive lobbying efforts by the BC government. So much so that the only option available to gov. Schwarzenegger - Gordo's "green" buddy - was to recently veto a California state legislature bill unfavorable to run-of-river. Another executive override to a legally binding decision. Shaky ground indeed.
  • Both Campbell and Schwarzenegger are at all-time popularity lows in the polls. An election tomorrow morning in either place would wipe them out of office. Not the best of positions to perform an executive override to a legally binding decision. Did I mention that the ground was shaky?
  • California will not need BC's ungreen energy in the future, because it is rapidly building its own green solar power capacity, having recognized that solar is clean, abundantly available at home, cheaper by the month, and brings badly needed jobs to that state's failing economy. The rationale for importing BC's energy to California is running thin. It can only, at best, be justified as a temporary stop-gap measure until California's solar capacity comes online - five years, ten at most. This is one of the reasons why the California legislature is so reluctant to greening up BC's ungreen energy. Opening the floodgates to that energy would potentially sabotage the takeoff of California's nascent solar industry.
  • In the context of a stubbornly deep recession and global energy bubble, the world is entering an era of energy overproduction. This means that the energy pie can only shrink over time for corporations engaged on that market. As a result, corporate players are fiercely fighting among themselves for a piece of that pie. British Columbia is no exception. In particular, small IPP players are not pleased with the mammoth-size Bute Inlet "run-of-river" project put forward by Plutonic Power and General Electric. Indeed, if that 1,027 MW project is approved, there will only be scraps left for smaller players. This makes them tactical allies of environmental groups and grassroots organizations, at least for a time. That could be amusing.
  • Speak of public discontent. With the unraveling of the US financial bailout scam, the average citizen in BC, like elsewhere, is increasingly skeptical (that would be a euphemism) about the true intentions and motives of large transnational corporations. So when the BCUC says that private power projects are not in the public interest, and grassroots groups deconstruct the IPP scam, people are rather inclined to listen.
I was a witness of that a couple weeks ago when an astroturf pro-IPP group calling themselves "BC Citizens for Green Energy" (!!) published a letter in the Georgia Straight and was subsequently shot down by an avalanche of unhappy public comments who called them off as frauds. The astroturfers left the scene with a digital nosebleed, it wasn't a pretty sight.

For all those reasons, I'm pretty upbeat about our chances of seeing this campaign through to a successful conclusion. I'm definitely more optimistic about our chances than I was a year ago. I am quite confident that our adversaries are in an opposite mood right now - especially after thinking for a brief moment that they had wrapped it after the last provincial election. They have had disaster after disaster since then.

On the wall of the Wilderness Committee's office in Vancouver, there is a quote that sums for me the mood of this IPP campaign:

First they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win.


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