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BC Hydro poll shows 'broad' backing of Site C, but signs of growing resistance

49 per cent support project unconditionally
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Support for Site C both in B.C. (top) and Northern/Northeast B.C. (bottom). BC Hydro says a new poll shows "broad" support for the dam, but that support has been softening as construction continues.

A majority of British Columbians either support building the Site C dam outright or support it under certain conditions, according to a new poll commissioned by BC Hydro.

Seventy seven per cent of respondents to the survey, which was conducted April 15 to 24, said they supported building the $8.8 billion hydroelectric dam on the Peace River, either with no reservations (49 per cent) or "under certain circumstances" (24 per cent). Twenty five per cent unconditionally opposed Site C.

Support was softer in Northeast B.C., where 69 per cent supported the dam—47 per cent fully and 22 per cent conditionally.

The Abacus Data poll was commissioned by BC Hydro and released June 8. It found that eight out of ten British Columbians were aware of Site C.

Opponents of the dam are sure to take exception to the wording of the question, which asked whether respondents supported the dam "to help meet the rising demand for electricity in B.C."

Whether B.C. needs power from a third Peace River dam has been one of the biggest points of contention in the Site C debate. BC Hydro critic Adrian Dix has said demand for electricity in B.C. is flat, and accused BC Hydro of "chasing customers"  for Site C. Earlier this year, the B.C. government said it was in talks to supply power to Alberta, which is shuttering its coal-fired generating stations.  

In an interview in Fort St. John earlier this month, Energy Minister Bill Bennett said he had "no doubt" that the demand for electricity in B.C. "will continue to grow significantly in the years ahead."   

Opposition rises provincially, flat locally

Local and provincial opposition to Site C have followed different trends since the project was approved in 2014.

B.C.-wide opposition sat at 18 per cent in 2014, when the B.C. government green-lighted the project. Opposition dipped to 17 per cent in 2015, but climbed to 24 per cent this year as construction and clear cutting ramped up in the Peace River Valley.

Unconditional support for the project peaked at 59 per cent in 2015, falling to 49 per cent at the last survey.

In Northern B.C., opposition to Site C peaked at 38 per cent in 2014 and dropped 26 per cent the past two years. In that time, the region has gone from near-full employment to having the province's worst joblessness rate.

In a release, Abacus Chairman Bruce Anderson said "any major project of this sort will encounter healthy public scrutiny and debate, and it's not unusual to see growing resistance as these debates evolve."

The poll also gives insights into where opponents of the dam have been most successful in framing the issues around Site C.

A question on BC Hydro's Site C performance found that 38 per cent believed the Crown corporation had done a "poor" or "very poor" job on limiting the dam's impacts on agricultural land —Hydro's highest unfavourable rating on the Site C file.

Thirty five per cent believed Hydro had done poorly on both "being open and communicating well with the public about the project" and "taking a respectful and collaborative approach with First Nations communities."

Hydro's lowest unfavourable rating was on "making sure the project provides good job and economic benefits for B.C. workers," with only 19 per cent saying Hydro had done a poor job.  

One thousand adult British Columbians were surveyeed by phone for the poll.

reporter@dcdn.ca