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W.A.C. Bennett Dam
Resource negotiations with the U.S. have historically been contentious, but this one has the entertainment potential of a barroom brawl
The Province of B.C. and U.S. regulatory authorities have now staked out their preliminary bargaining positions over the potential renewal of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty, and it has the promise of being a very entertaining barroom brawl.
This complex treaty has provided for joint management of a series of dams on the river on both sides of the border, with the U.S. providing electric power to B.C. (or money if the power is not needed) in part to compensate for the economic and ecological damage created by the dams. This is called the “Canadian entitlement.” Within the next year, both parties have to decide whether or not to renew it, renegotiate it, or walk away from it.
First out of the gate was the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with a joint letter that says, in part, "It is in the best interests of the region to modernize the treaty post-2024 in such a way as to bring about better and more balanced benefits to the region."
Translation: Cut that Canadian entitlement; we’ve been giving these guys far too much money and it has to stop.
A few days ago, the B.C. response to that was released in the form of 14 draft recommendations to be considered in a treaty review, which say in part, “The ongoing impacts to the Canadian Columbia Basin to meet treaty requirements should be acknowledged and compensated for. The level of benefits... does not account for the full range of benefits in the United States (U.S.) or the impacts in British Columbia.”
Translation: You Americans have been getting off cheap and it’s time to pay up. No need to renegotiate; just give us more money.
Whether it’s fish, lumber, or pipeline approvals, negotiations between Canada and the U.S. are never simple, and are often acrimonious. But the wild card in this one is the man B.C. has put in charge of the file—Energy Minister Bill Bennett.
Bennett is no stranger to cross-border disputes, and has lots of experience (albeit at a somewhat lower level than his current position) dealing with the intransigency that often accompanies U.S. negotiating positions. He famously tried to run U.S. Senator Max Baucus out of Fernie a few years ago when B.C. and Montana were banging heads over potential coal mine development in the Flathead Valley in southeastern B.C.
Journalist Trevor Cole, in an article published in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business in 2008, tells the story best:
“'Man, we got tattooed,’ remembers a former member of Baucus's staff. ‘They were vicious. They had demonstrations. It was ugly.’ Video footage taken by a freelance cameraman for the local CTV affiliate shows Bennett confronting Baucus in the middle of the street, surrounded by supporters: ‘I'd like to tell you, sir, that you're actually not welcome here.... You have chosen throughout your career to kick the hell out of Canada, and that's why we're here today,’ hectors Bennett. ‘You've got to stop doing it. You've got to stop kicking the crap out of us in the newspapers down in Montana.’”
With that in mind, the question is which Bill Bennett will show up at the negotiating table when the Columbia River Treaty is up for grabs. The Americans can be infuriating when they get into it—just ask legions of Canadian negotiators dealing with them on lumber—and a short-tempered cabinet minister at the helm might provide some serious entertainment as this works its way through.
Don Whiteley is a natural resources writer based in North Vancouver.