Strength in Community: Tom Hackney and the GSX

Tom Hackney, President of the GSX Concerned Citizens Coalition gives a prime example of how a community can come together to change the world. Below he discusses how the GSX Coalition stopped BC Hydro’s pipeline and gas-fired generation projects on Vancouver Island.

Tom is also the GSX campaigner for the BC Chapter of the Sierra Club of Canada’s Global Climate Change Program and is a director with the BC Sustainable Energy Association. Tom was interviewed on July 5, 2005 by Will Horter, Dogwood Initiative’s Executive Director.

Will: So, Tom, why don’t you explain the issue that the GSX concerned citizens worked on?

Tom: Well, the big picture issue was with BC Hydro’s strategic plan to meet BC’s new electricity demand by means of gas fired power plants on Vancouver Island. And the reason for that was an initial assessment that their transmission cables linking to the island were getting old. Then there was some fast thinking-and a little bit of government policy-jumping in there and the decision was made that rather than renewing the cables-which is BC Hydro’s sensible plan-they would build a gas pipeline to the island.  And then having built that gas pipeline to the island, it would make economic sense that all generation would become located on Vancouver Island for the next 20 years.  BC Hydro’s electricity needs would be met by more and more generation on the island.

And, so, I got involved as a volunteer of the Sierra Club because I wanted to address climate change…  But the people who formed the real core energy against the pipeline proposal were the people in Cobble Hill and to a lesser extent, in Duncan.  They saw this… three arms of pipeline route running through their farms and backyards, and past their schools and stuff like that and they got very upset.  And even when it got narrowed down to a single route, people were still very energised to oppose it and their response was that of surprise when BC Hydro offered its explanation.   They were not satisfied by the explanation and there was a good deal of gut response against BC Hydro in what was seen as an arrogant position-that it was a decided project and local input would be rejected.  So I would say that whole mess of stuff was a real energiser to the opposition to the pipeline.

WillAnd what were their concerns about the effects on theircommunity and the environment?

Tom:  I think the actual environmental issues of digging a trench through your community and filling it in and then having to ask questions like, “Can I drive my tractor over it,” and “Is it going to explode?” are genuine concerns.  I guess they’re the kind of concerns which I would have thought could be handled by good engineering and I think there’s a real energy against-they just didn’t like the idea of a big infrastructure project being pushed through their community when they just didn’t see the need for it.

Will:   So you’re saying the arrogance of BC Hydro was a kind of a spark?

Tom:  Well, that’s certainly the impression I got from the people I was working with.  …  I didn’t get that worked up against BC Hydro. But then I lived in Victoria; my property was not directly affected by it.

WillSo what did the people decide to do about that?

Tom:  The public community consultations that BC Hydro organised were packed, and people were asking very pointed questions, and quite angrily.  And that was the initial response.  And after that there was the “what can we do” approach.  And Arthur Caldicott started up a listserv and people started discussing, and at that point I joined the project through the listserv.  And we started meeting.

Will:  And so who are some of the other key people?

Tom:  Well, the people who got together to form the GSX coalition, or the GSX Concerned Citizens Coalition are: myself, Arthur Caldicott, Steve and Dodie Miller; Don  Skerik and Phil Marchant, who were up in Duncan, they represented the Council of Canadians Cowichan Chapter.  And Saul Arbess represented the Council of CanadiansVictoria Chapter, he was initially a member of the steering committee. Also, Kevin Maher and Mairi McLennan of Cobble Hill and Peter Ronald from the Georgia Strait Alliance.

Will: And Steven Miller?

Tom:  Steve and Dodie Miller.  Steve originally worked as a statistician for the BC government for their stats bureau.  He had a farm up in Cobble Hill and I think he was particularly excited by the project because he really crunched the numbers that BC Hydro was putting forward and was finding gaps in them and he was looking for explanations from BC Hydro andwas not being satisfied with the explanations.  His ability with numbers to really penetrate what was being said and to find the weakness in what was being said was, I think, what really motivated him to call BC Hydro and challenge them.  And he came up with a very different assessment with what our electricity needs really were.  And so at a very rational, factual basis he was challenging the whole rationale for the project.

Will: So, those core people became the steering committee for the coalition.  Were there other people you were working with as well?

Tom:  There were a bunch of people.  There were the landowners who were directly affected, and they were putting up signs saying, “No pipeline on this property,” and they formed their own group, the VIPLA, the Vancouver Island Pipeline Landowners Association.  And at that point they ended up in a sort of different stream of opposition because they retained a lawyer to represent their interests and became very focused on protecting themselves from the actual landholder impact.  And whether they could drive their hay-loaded tractor over the pipeline and whether they would be prevented from doing that. And because of the rules, the law seemed to me to be heavily slanted to the pipeline companies’ convenience.  They (the landowners) actually negotiated settlements to a considerable extent.  So from an advocacy perspective, they were not front and centre of the advocacy but they were sort of a “negotiating party”.

WillSo you started around that pipeline and you were successful, what led to the success and the stopping of the pipeline?

Tom:  The success: a great deal of delay and finally the economics.  The advice we got from Tim Howard, of Sierra Legal, at the beginning.  Tim was retained by the David Suzuki Foundation and SPEC (Society Promoting Environmental Conservation), and he told us that the legal issue would be unlikely to win without political support as well, i.e. grassroots opposition.  So we just organised a lot of grassroots opposition, besides the coalition which met on a regular basis.  There were a large number of people who attended the National Energy Board regulatory process on the pipeline.

One of the first things that happened was that we asked the government to have a panel review of the project rather than a so-called comprehensive study review, which is a far lower degree of review.  It’s a comment on the sort of slanted nature of the process how naive we were, starting out.   We were told that a “comprehensive study review” would be equivalent to a “panel review” by members of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the National Energy Board.  We were lucky enough to have one person, Susie Washington -Smythe, who had actually a lot of knowledge of h
ow government processes worked, and she immediately said that we needed to have a panel review.  So everybody mobilised on demanding a panel review and the Minister of Environment, David Anderson, accorded us one.  And, in retrospect, that was critically important because the amount of opportunity for us to bring forward our case, and of people to come forward and speak, was enormously magnified and was also drawn out considerably.

So I would say that that was a key part in the campaign.  Just to make a long story short-and it was a really long, protracted story-the National Energy Board did approve the pipeline in 2003, but shortly, about a year later, BC Hydro cancelled the project, citing economics.  The price of gas had gone up in the interim, and by that time we also had a real fight on our hands regarding the power plants that were supposed to be built on the island.  So, really, why did we win?  It was the attrition and the long protracted process coupled with the price of gas going up.

Will:   So then you moved your agenda to the Duke Point project?

Tom:  Yes, the Duke Point Project was originally the Port Alberni Co-Generation project which the BC government ordered BC Hydro to build in, I guess, around ’98 or so.  And the Co-Generation part fell and it became the Port Alberni Generation project, which would have been beside a residential zone.  And one of the first and easiest campaigns of the GSX coalition was to travel to Port Alberni and alert the local residents about what this was and what we thought it meant.  Then they put together a very strong campaign at the local level to fight against a rezoning, and they succeeded in persuading council not to grant the rezoning, and BC Hydro withdrew from Port Alberni at that time and started a search for another site on the Lower Vancouver Island.  They went to North Cowichan, again trying to get another rezoning.  That was another one of our successful, quick actions where we participated in the communities, filling an auditorium and telling council that they didn’t want a rezoning.  And then BC Hydro lit on Nanaimo, which did not require a rezoning.  And the mayor, Korpan, and council, were a good deal more supportive of getting a project.  So that ended up as BC Hydro’s Vancouver Island Generation Project, the 2003 project reviewed by the Utilities Commission.

And this is sort of where the exhaustion and the attrition were starting to make themselves felt.  We had just finished a very exhausting review before the National Energy Board and now the Utilities Commission came through with this project so we drank an extra cup of coffee and got right back into it.  We were able to bring Steve Miller’s expert analysis of BC Hydro’s load forecast, and we were also able to get some expert evidence on greenhouse gas emissions and potential liability which we brought to the process, which took place in Nanaimo.

And at that time the Joint Industry Electricity Steering Committee also decided it didn’t like the idea of on-island gas fired generation, due to the their assessment that the cost would be higher than they wanted, due to the price of gas going up.  So, at that point, their opposition and the opposition of our group-I don’t know who ranked higher in the Utilities Commission’s thinking-managed to persuade the Commission that BC Hydro’s plant should not be approved, and BC Hydro undertook at that point to do a complicated and different process: a call for tenders on Vancouver Island to verify whether they could get a better price.

And that gave rise to the call for tenders process which happened during 2004.  It picked a winner, which was the Vancouver Island Generation Project, only this time in private hands rather than built by BC Hydro. It was the Pristine Power Incorporated Company, out of Calgary, that formed the Duke Point Power Limited Partnership to build the project. And that gave rise to the Duke Point proceedings which took place in January, 2005.  Again, our group brought an intervention.  Again we brought evidence on global climate change issues and Steve Milller’s evidence on load forecasting.  And again the industrial group opposed it on electricity pricing.  This time around the Utilities Commission approved the project.  And that would have been the end of the game, except that the Utilities Commission panel had -during the course of that review-an in camera meeting in which their discussion seemed to be a discussion of the actual end result that the chair wanted to achieve from the review.  Or at least that was one of the ways that the discussion could be interpreted.  

And at that point, I think that all parties were opposed to the plant except BC Hydro.  And even within BC Hydro, if rumour is correct, there was a lot of opposition to the plant.  So, again, our group, and the industrial group decided to appeal the decision of the commission to the BC Court of Appeal on the basis of a reasonable apprehension of bias, stemming mostly from that in camera session.  And we were able to get funding from the WCEL [West Coast Environmental Law] – their Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund – which allowed us to retain a lawyer to do the arguing. That was Bill Andrews, who did a heck of a lot of very solid work for us during the years. He helped us with advice very early in the campaign, and his input throughout was absolutely critical to our ability to participate in the highly legal, technical regulatory reviews.


And we brought it to the Court of Appeal.  We were denied leave to appeal the first time around, but we had the right to ask for reconsideration.  And on reconsideration we were finally granted leave to appeal.  Several days later, BC Hydro announced that they had decided to cancel the contract citing the regulatory uncertainty that we had created by our appeal application.

Will: ...I wasn’t aware of the whole story… You had multiple victories in that process.  You killed the GSX pipeline, you then killed the Port Alberni co-generation project, then you killed the idea of it in North Cowichan, then you killed the Vancouver Island project and then, ultimately, Duke Point. So that’s like six or seven actual victories in that process.  That’s quite incredible.  Did you have any direct funding from foundations other than the support of the ERDF.  How was this effort funded?  Was it mostly volunteer?

Tom:  There was a heck of a lot of volunteer work done and we did get $25,000 through the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to intervene in the National Energy Board review of the pipeline.  For the intervention in the Utilities Commission proceedings we were actually able to take advantage of the legally created system of getting an award.  So we were able to pay our legal counsel and our experts amounts of money that approximated professional level of pay.  They were working on spec: they were taking the risk that they would get the award, but the award did come through.  And what happened was the Utilities Commission ordered BC Hydro to pay our expenses.  Which they did.  Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to mount a professional intervention.

WillAnd how do the people feel now?  I mean they must feel pretty powerful going through this kind of complex process based on mostly volunteer effort and succeeding repeatedly.  Are they looking for their next challenge?

Tom:  I think some of the people are getting pretty exhausted from five and a half years of work to try and defeat the strategy. And there are other people who are definitely looking for challenges and how they can productively input into BC Hydro’s plans.

Will:   Great.  Anything else you want to add that you think people need to know, or should know?

Tom:  Well, I mean if you get grabbed by a project and you think it’s important enough to get involved in, you’ll get taken places you never knew existed.

WillAny advice for other communities facing similar challenges?

Tom:  I think I would say we did really well by focusing on the facts and the evidence.  In this case we were fighting a rather ill-conceived project that was not well-planned.  It’s hard work.  But if you want to do it, go for it.

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