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Concrete is poured on the south bank of the Site C hydroelectric dam project.

Former New Democratic premier Mike Harcourt has called on the NDP to cancel the $9-billion Site C hydroelectric project if his old party defeats the Liberal government in the provincial election next spring.

Speaking at a clean-energy conference on Monday in Vancouver, Mr. Harcourt, who gave up his party membership after the NDP blew the 2013 election, said the dam project on the Peace River is damaging environmentally and economically and fails to respect First Nations rights.

"I personally think that Site C is … a disaster," Mr. Harcourt said. "You can take a bad idea and just say no and cut your losses – and that's what I'd do with Site C."

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Read more: Environmental groups urge UNESCO to revisit Site C

Read more: B.C. projects create testing ground for UN declaration on indigenous rights

Editorial: At B.C.'s Site C dam, two visions of native rights clash

Liberal Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett, who spoke at the conference just before Mr. Harcourt, defended the Site C project as one that makes sense for British Columbia because it will provide power at the best price for ratepayers.

But Mr. Harcourt said Site C is going to cost far more than the $9-billion price tag it currently carries, and that means cancelling it now – even though nearly $2-billion has already been spent – would be the best financial decision for the province.

"You cut your loss at $2-billion or you go ahead and blindly build and [get] $15- to $19-billion in the hole," he said.

Mr. Harcourt said that, globally, megaprojects show a pattern of massive cost overruns. He cited the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador, saying it is more than $4-billion over target and construction is still under way. Muskrat Falls was estimated to cost $6.2-billion when it was approved, but in June, the price was pegged at $11.4-billion.

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Mr. Harcourt said if Site C proceeds, the province will be left with a huge debt load that will push up hydro rates.

Mr. Bennett, however, told the conference the project is the best way to provide British Columbians with a continued, steady supply of power.

He said the dam, the third on the Peace River, will have a reservoir that is only 5 per cent the size of the Williston Reservoir, but it will generate 30 per cent of the power.

Mr. Bennett said when the Site C proposal came before cabinet, he was not sure of its merits, but after taking a hard look, he became convinced it would be good for British Columbia.

"We didn't come to that decision because we didn't like your industry," he told delegates at Generate 2016. The conference is organized by Clean Energy BC, an association that represents companies involved in producing power from wind, solar, hydro, biomass and geothermal projects.

The Site C project sent a shock-wave through the renewable power sector because it would drastically reduce B.C. Hydro's need for privately produced power. Mr. Bennett told the conference he realized how hard it is on the industry.

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"It's true there won't be as many opportunities [to develop private power projects] … it's going to be tough for a few years," he said.

But Mr. Bennett reminded the audience that the Liberals "believed in you in 2002" when government policies encouraged the growth of the clean-power sector. And he said "we will continue to believe in that, if you give us another chance in May."

The next provincial election is May 9.

Mr. Bennett said the Liberals are pushing the LNG industry to use more electricity and with help from the federal government's infrastructure spending program, BC Hydro hopes to build a power line to Alberta.

Such projects, he said, will help the private power sector expand.

"Our opportunity is to drive demand. It's to get people to use more electricity," he said.

NDP Leader John Horgan could not be reached to comment, but he said last month that, if elected, he would not rule out cancelling Site C.

"I don't think we're at the too-late stage," he said, promising to revisit the issue closer to the election.

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