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Advancing the case for geothermal energy production in British Columbia

Today in the legislature, Shirley Bond, the MLA for Prince George-Valemont and I quizzed the Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources about the delays involving approval of a permit expansion for Borealis GeoPower.

As I have discussed numerous times in the past, British Columbia is the only jurisdiction throughout the entire Pacific Rim that isn’t using its geothermal resources. As noted in a 2014 Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA) report,

  • Geothermal unit energy cost conservatively estimated at 7.3¢/kWh compared to BC Hydro’s 2014 estimate of 8.3¢/kWh for Site C.
  • Geothermal plant construction equalling the energy output of the proposed Peace River dam is estimated at $3.3 billion compared to at least $8.8 billion for Site C.
  • Geothermal plants provide more permanent jobs that are distributed across British Columbia.
  • For the same power production, the total physical and environmental footprint of geothermal projects would be substantially smaller than Site C.

Below I reproduce both the text and video of the exchange between Shirley Bond, Michelle Mungall and me. As you will see from the discussion, I was troubled by some of the responses we received from the Minister. Nevertheless, the overall conversation was generally positive and bodes well for the future of  this particular geothermal energy project.

Text of Exchange

S. Bond: I’d like to spend a couple of minutes talking about a project that is incredibly important when we’re talking about clean energy in British Columbia.

I’m wondering if the minister can give me a sense of her understanding and the status of the project that’s being suggested by Borealis GeoPower.

Hon. M. Mungall: To the member, I know that she is very interested in this project. It’s in her region. And I’ve been fully briefed on it by staff.

We’re very supportive of this project. I think it poses some pretty interesting opportunities. So far to date, in terms of geothermal production, which is what Borealis is, there hasn’t been any exploration that has proved up to be viable, but Borealis is doing that exploration. They’re confident that they can actually prove a viable geothermal source, and so we’re very supportive of them doing that work.

S. Bond: Thank you very much to the minister for her response. I appreciate that.

Certainly, in my riding, and particularly in Valemount and other parts of the region, the opportunity to diversify the economy is absolutely essential. One of the things that’s critical to that is a secure supply of power, because it’s very hard to attract industry and others if you can’t guarantee them a stable source of power. And there has been ongoing and…. I admit, over my 16 years as the MLA for this area, secure and stable power has been a significant issue.

So looking to diversify the economy, looking to create jobs — not a big number, but in our riding, you know, even one new job matters. So this project being proposed by Borealis GeoPower is a geothermal project. I have, certainly, over the course of a number of ministers, talked about the importance of looking at the portfolio, including alternative energy sources like geothermal.

The concern I have is that there continues to be a need for a permit expansion on the Canoe Reach geothermal project. I know that the proponents have been here. I have actually met with the leader of the Green Party about this project. And apparently, the permit is sitting somewhere waiting for approval.

Can the minister perhaps explain to us if and when that permit for expansion may be approved?

Hon. M. Mungall: As I said earlier in my response, our ministry is supportive of the project. We see a lot of potential. We’re excited about the opportunity for geothermal to potentially be proved up in this province. To date, it has yet to be done. We’re glad that Borealis is looking to do the work.

The ministry is actively engaged with them and is working with them throughout that permitting process. As the minister knows, there are statutory decision-makers involved in those stages. So my understanding at this point is that their applications are under consideration, and they are actively working with the ministry, and the ministry is actively working with them.

S. Bond: I appreciate that answer. I just don’t feel overly encouraged by it.

I appreciate the support for the potential of the project.

I think it is essential, as we’re having a major discussion in our province about clean energy, particularly in a region of the province that really needs to be able to diversify their economy.

I just want to walk through some of the…. I’m the first to admit that this permit was provided to the previous government — us, basically. This is not a short-term issue. In fact, the initial feedback about this application was provided in February of 2017. That was nine months after the original request from the Ministry of Energy, Mines — where it was stated that the ministry had completed the pre-tenure referral process. However, they were waiting, at that time, for the development of regulations. That wasn’t completed. The writ period came, the election came, and the new cabinet wasn’t formed until July 18.

This company, which is working very hard to…. It is one of the projects where I’ve seen significant support in my region, where people have stepped up and said: “This is something that we would like to see happen.” The delay has continued. The last information that certainly the company received was that the permit request was “with cabinet operations and the minister.”

It sounds to me like the permit is ready to be signed. I’m wondering if the minister can at least agree today that the ministry will look at where the permit request is and when it will be signed.

Hon. M. Mungall: I appreciate that Borealis and the member for the region would like to see this moving forward in a timely manner. I heard her comment about the length of time it already took under her government, that there was a nine-month time frame. If she’s wondering if, in the last four months, we’re moving at a more speedy pace, I can say yes.

A. Weaver: I’d like to follow up on the questioning from the member for Prince George–Valemount on this issue of Borealis. I, too, have met — with the member for Prince George–Valemount — several times with the proponents of this project. My understanding is identical to the former minister’s understanding, in that the permit is actually in the OIC process, waiting for signature.

My question would basically repeat, initially, the question made by the member: will the minister commit to actually looking, in terms of what’s in the queue in the OIC approval process, to determine whether or not she can expedite the signing of this permit? It is — I believe, as the member does — in her jurisdiction, not in the jurisdiction of a statutory decision-maker.

Hon. M. Mungall: I should let the member know that, due to the oath that I signed, I’m not at liberty to discuss cabinet agendas.

A. Weaver: I accept that as an answer. I do bring it to notice, though, as the member opposite did, that the answer that we did receive was one that, I would argue, is not the relevant answer, because permitting is not before a statutory decision-maker. It is before cabinet as we speak, in my understanding.

I’m coming to a question, then. This particular project, this Borealis project, is the at the end  of a transmission line in a community, Valemount, that’s subject to brownouts already, at the same time as there’s an approval process for the development of a major ski resort, Glacier Destinations.

This is a community where the Simpcw Nation wants this to happen. Valemount wants this to happen. The company wants to develop. The holdup is primarily, almost exclusively, in the minister’s office. Will the minister commit to actually looking at this project so that we don’t lose yet another investment — not of taxpayer money but investor money — in a community that’s dying to get this forward?

Hon. M. Mungall: I’m glad that we have members from both of the opposition parties — the official opposition and the Green Party as well — who are supportive of this project. As I mentioned to the member for Prince George–Valemount, government is very supportive of this project. We have to do our due diligence. That’s government job, as a regulatory body. I believe members of the Green Party were just asking questions in question period to that effect — that government has a job to do in terms of a regulatory function. We are doing that.

The Borealis project — as I’m very happy to see that members from all sides of the House agree — is a positive project and a good opportunity for British Columbia, if they are able to prove up any exploration that they’re able to do of the geothermal resource. As I mentioned, there has been past exploration of geothermal resources in B.C. that have not been able to prove up a sufficient resource to generate electricity. We’re hoping that that may change with Borealis.

That being said, as I’ve said to members already, I cannot discuss cabinet agendas, but the due diligence around this project has been done. Our ministry, our government, is very supportive of it, and we look forward to continue working with them into the future.

A. Weaver: I’m surprised that the minister would suggest that exploration has been done in geothermal that has not proven up a resource when B.C. Hydro has done precisely no exploration on geothermal and companies associated with the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association have done exploration to say that we have an enormous potential. In fact, we are only the jurisdiction in the Pacific Rim that does not have a geothermal capacity — not because we don’t have it but because there has been no will to develop it.

I come back to this issue of Valemount. Valemount is at the end of a transmission line, a transmission line that leaves Valemount to brownouts all the time in the winter. B.C. Hydro has to upgrade that transmission line, and there’s a massive capital cost involved in doing that. B.C. Hydro produces power, is the sole purchaser of power and also is responsible for the development of transmission of power.

My question to the minister is: how does she ensure that the transmission component of B.C. Hydro actually talks with the part of B.C. Hydro that purchases power so that they recognize that the cost benefit of developing up transmission line power is there to avoid the unnecessary expense of capital to upgrade transmission lines? If you upgrade the power at the end point, you don’t need to bring up the transmission line to give more power to the end point. Will she commit to ensure that B.C. Hydro starts to talk between the different branches so that the actual full capital cost of moving forward is recognized when this is done?

Hon. M. Mungall: I just want to address something that the member said before I get to the actual answer of the question. The member said that B.C. Hydro had never done any exploration of geothermal. That is actually not the case. Let me take this opportunity to make sure he is aware of what happened in the 1980s.

B.C. Hydro actually explored a site at Mount Meager, as part of the federal geothermal program that existed in the 1970s and 1980s. They drilled dozens of holes to understand the temperature at that location. They drilled three production wells to attempt to find commercial resource. Unfortunately, they had no commercial success.

They spent about $25 million doing this activity, and the result was that there was just not enough steam or water to move into full electrical production. So I just wanted to make sure the member was aware that, actually, that work has been done by B.C. Hydro. I should also mention that further work has been attempted since then in that site, but yet with the same result.

In terms of the transmission that the member asked about, everyone is in agreement. Whether it’s B.C. Hydro or whether it’s the ministry, we all agree that there are definite benefits and reliability to the transmission site should Borealis be successful and be able to prove up this resource.

Again, I feel like there’s a little bit of a characterization from members opposite that somehow this government isn’t supportive of the Borealis project when in fact we actually are. I’m very pleased to see that that support is shared by all parties in the House.

A. Weaver: I’m sorry, my last question. I just to want to comment on the statement about Mount Meager.

Mount Meager was done in the 1980s — one location. There has been an entire report published by the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association in 2014 outlining the myriad places in British Columbia where geothermal capacity exists. To suggest that one study by B.C. Hydro in the 1980s represents a feasibility analysis in British Columbia is misleading. B.C. Hydro has not taken the proactive steps to explore geothermal capacity in British Columbia.

I reiterate. We are the only jurisdiction in the Pacific Rim that has no geothermal capacity — none — and it’s because B.C. Hydro builds dams. That’s what they do. In fact, they’re not actually tasked in their mandate to build geothermal, so why would we expect them to explore it?

I would suggest…. I do appreciate that the minister is supportive of this, but I think it’s important that the minister not dismiss the fact that B.C. Hydro has not explored British Columbia for geothermal capacity. It’s not me saying that. It’s the National Energy Board review of the Site C project that’s said that. It’s the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association report in 2014 that’s said that. It’s submissions to the BCUC process now that said it. So I would suggest the minister recognize that B.C. Hydro has not done exploration of geothermal in B.C. Experts across British Columbia and across North America have said exactly that as well.

S. Bond: Apparently, the minister didn’t feel there was a question there, so I’ll provide another one.

It’s like we have a raging agreement going on in this Legislature. It’s not about divulging cabinet secrets about the agenda, it’s about asking for reasonable explanation to these proponents about when they can expect the permit for expansion to be signed.

It’s a simple question. Can the minister or her staff provide us with some sense…? You know, this proponent and this community…. I appreciate the comments made by the leader of the Green Party. This matters a lot. This has taken enormous consultation. It is a community that is in agreement with this. The minister has said she supports the project. When can we expect to see the signed permit?

Hon. M. Mungall: As I’ve said before, we appreciate the value of this project to the region. We appreciate the opportunity it has to provide for British Columbia, for Prince George–Valemount in particular. That being said….

I appreciate that the member opposite would like a conclusive answer today. She knows the process of estimates. If I was able to provide that, I would have.

I’m not able to provide that for her today, but I will commit that we are working on it in a timely fashion. It’s unfortunate that her government was not able to approve it in such a way. We, however, will be doing that.

S. Bond: I just want to quote from a note that said “we have heard back from a staff member in the ministry on October 13, who said the permit request was with cabinet operations and the minister.” I hardly think that that is timely. We’re well into November now. It’s just a matter of actually sorting out who is going to advocate for that permit to be signed to get the matter completed.

My final question relates to B.C. Hydro. I understand that in a conversation with the BCUC, they are suggesting that B.C. Hydro partner with industry to develop geothermal projects. I’m not sure if the minister is aware of that. If she is, can she also tell me whether or not she has had a conversation with the minister who is responsible for Columbia Power Corp and the Columbia Basin Trust to talk about whether or not the Columbia Power Corp could be included in a discussion about a partnership of that nature?

Hon. M. Mungall: So first off, I just want to state for the record that B.C. Hydro is interested in geothermal and proved-up sources and working with companies like Borealis, should they be successful.

The member’s question was whether I’ve spoken with the Minister of Children and Families, who is also responsible for the Columbia Power Corporation. My understanding is probably coming from a letter she would have received from Borealis. Borealis was looking for funding, is my understanding, from Columbia Basin Trust and perhaps maybe a partnership, is my guess perhaps, with the Columbia Power Corporation in terms of moving forward and seeking some financial support. That is not within my ministry.

To her question of if I’ve had an opportunity to meet with the minister responsible for CBT and CPC, I have not yet to date.

S. Bond: Thank you very much for the opportunity to ask these questions.

As we’ve heard in this House today, Valemount has either the most power outages in the entire B.C. Hydro grid system or is at least one of the communities that has the most.

There is an opportunity with a geothermal project in the Robson Valley to actually do some very significant things, which actually has important trickle-down effects. Growing the economy — hard to do if you can’t say there is a secure and stable power source.

Certainly, as we’ve reviewed this file and met with Borealis, in the community and numerous times here in Victoria, what’s standing between getting to drill on the land and move toward operations is an outstanding geothermal permit.

I would simply urge the minister to advocate on behalf of this — getting the permit signed and getting on with what is an essential opportunity to look at alternative sources of energy in a part of the province that needs them significantly.

Video of Exchange

One Comment

  1. MARTY-
    November 8, 2017 at 8:43 am

    So why exactly did you push the Liberal government so hard to push forward with site C .If this energy is more environmentally friendly cheaper and just as accessible why did you not push this instead of being adamant that site C start immediately a few years ago