Pipeline denial has chilling effect on businesses and home heating

Opinion: Despite the NDP’s history of running roughshod over the BC Public Service Commission, the ruling party seems content to let the decision on an Okanagan project stand.

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VICTORIA – The NDP’s climate plan appears to have scuttled a $327 million pipeline to expand natural gas service in the Okanagan.

Fortis BC sought regulatory approval for the project from the BC Public Utilities Commission, saying the 30-kilometre extension was necessary to meet growing demand for natural gas in the growing region.

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The company predicted that without it, the carrying capacity of its existing network would be exhausted within two winters. It might even have to restrict service to some of the 105,000 customers it currently serves.

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A two-member public services commission panel accepted the company’s evidence of a looming shortfall in its ability to deliver natural gas to the region.

“The panel agrees and believes there is an immediate need to address this looming capacity shortfall,” wrote panel chair DA Cote and panelist AK Fung.

Still, they rejected the request, arguing that in the long term the province’s climate plan would “potentially” reduce the consumption of fossil fuels such as natural gas.

Its decision, issued Dec. 22, specifically cited the likely impact of “the Clean Roadmap, changes to the BC Energy Steps Code and the Zero Carbon Steps Code,” all elements of the government’s Clean BC plan. Ebby.

“The panel declines to grant a certificate (approval) at this time because we consider that it is not necessary for the public convenience and does not serve the public interest.”

Okanagan residents may disagree, especially those who rely on natural gas or anyone who wants to access the Fortis network for residential or commercial purposes.

Those concerns could be magnified considering Fortis’ response to the decision.

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“We are disappointed that our application to develop this important piece of infrastructure has been denied,” the company said the day the commission issued its decision. “The Okanagan Capacity Enhancement Project is necessary to meet peak energy demand in the Okanagan region, which occurs during the colder winter months when customers rely on gas to heat their homes and businesses.”

Environmental activists opposed Fortis’ request and hailed the commission’s decision as a major victory.

But, as the commissioners emphasized in their decision, the ruling against Fortis ultimately came down to the informed opinion of the two panelists.

“The question of whether public convenience and necessity require a certain action is not a question of fact. “It is primarily about forming an opinion,” they wrote, citing an earlier commission decision. “Of course, facts must be established to justify a decision. But that decision cannot be made without a substantial exercise of administrative discretion.”

By exercising their administrative discretion to reject the pipeline project, the two commissioners left the door ajar to other ways to address the Fortis capacity problem.

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The commission is reviewing a separate application to provide renewable gas service in the region, which if approved could affect demand for regular natural gas. The panel also ordered Fortis “to examine other near-term solutions and submit a mitigation plan to the BCUC by the end of July 2024.”

Still, suspending for now the $327 million pipeline project, funded entirely with private money, is the kind of thing the BC Business Council warned about in its recent report on the chilling effect of the NDP’s CleanBC plan on investment and job creation.

The commission’s decision will also likely suspend Fortis’ pending agreement to share profits from the pipeline project with the Penticton Indian Band.

New Democratic MLA Joan Phillip, the MLA for Vancouver-Hastings, was the band’s land manager for 20 years. Her husband, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, was formerly chief of the Penticton band.

New Democrat Harwinder Sandhu, the first-term MLA for Vernon-Monashee, represents several of the communities (Lumby, Lavington, Coldstream and Vernon) most likely to be shortchanged when the Fortis network reaches capacity.

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The New Democrats could argue that their climate plan, for all its good intentions, was never intended to cancel a project that was crafted to address an “imminent capacity shortfall,” to quote the commission’s own words.

However, by refusing to get involved in any challenge to the public services commission’s decision, the New Democrats could claim to be respecting the commission’s independence.

Except that was never his opinion when it suited his own political interests. The NDP cabinet has issued directive after directive to the commission, compromising its independence over ICBC rates and BC Hydro rebates.

The cabinet must be preparing to overturn the commission again, given Prime Minister David Eby’s hints about another Hydro rebate to offset the upcoming increase in the carbon tax.

Eby himself made a mockery of the commission’s independence last September, when he fired executive director David Morton and replaced him with Mark Jaccard, the SFU professor who oversaw the commission during the last NDP government.

But as things stand today, the New Democrats have accepted the rejection of the pipeline project as a consequence of their climate plan and have also accepted the imminent risk to the continuity of natural gas service in the Okanagan.

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