When it comes to coal, Alberta should follow Ontario’s lead

We’ve recently seen some industry messaging that suggests Alberta has little to gain from phasing out coal-fired power and a lot to lose. In fact, some folks are even trying to suggest Ontario made a big mistake when it decided to get rid of its No. 1 source of industrial air pollution.

It’s a claim that, frankly, is all smoke and mirrors. The industry’s contention is that power rates spiked after Ontario ended coal burning. But while it’s true power rates have risen in Ontario since it began closing its aging coal plants, those increases have far more to do with rebuilding a long-neglected electricity system – including massively costly repairs to nuclear facilities – than with replacing coal largely with cheap natural gas.

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But more importantly, it reminds us why Ontario decided to end coal burning in the first place: costs and more costs. The price per kilowatt you see on your power bill is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cost of burning coal. In Ontario, health-care costs related to air pollution were estimated to be more than $1-billion a year in the late 1990s.

What all three major political parties in Ontario came to realize when they dug into the health impact numbers provided by the province’s doctors was that burning coal was anything but cheap. And that was before factoring in the climate impacts of the massive greenhouse gas emissions created by burning this fossil fuel. In the midst of the devastating December, 2013, ice storm, which followed on the heels of a spring and summer of widespread flooding across the province, Ontarians got some firsthand experience with the costly realities of an increasingly unstable climate.

Of course, the fact that coal plants were the province’s leading source of mercury also didn’t make coal a great bargain. Mercury is a neurotoxin, particularly harmful to children and the unborn, and a real threat to healthy childhood development. While almost every other source of mercury was in steep decline, mercury emissions from coal plants were actually soaring in Ontario at the beginning of the 2000s. And, of course, if you valued the province’s forests, lakes and fisheries, keeping the province’s largest contributors to acid rain – its five coal plants – pumping out pollutants also seemed like a pretty sour deal.

Ontario, in fact, did get one thing wrong. The province wasted hundreds of millions of dollars and created years of costly delay by trying to solve this massive problem with half-measures such as scrubbers. In hindsight, we can see that this was really just money flushed down the drain as it failed to address many of the most costly impacts of coal burning.

In April, 2014, Toronto Public Health reported that premature deaths due to air pollution in the city have fallen by 23 per cent and air pollution related hospitalizations have fallen by 41 per cent over the past decade. In a city with a rapidly growing population and more cars on the road every year, air quality is now significantly better than it was when coal plants were operating.

Similarly, province-wide, smog days have dropped from a peak of 53 in 2005 (one of coal’s last big years) to two in 2013. Even factoring in weather conditions, there is clearly something happening here and eliminating the province’s biggest single source of smog ingredients has to have played an important role in clearing the air.

In many ways, Alberta has even more options for replacing coal than Ontario: excellent wind and solar resources (superior to Ontario’s and on par with the U.S. Midwest where wind power is now often cheaper than coal), plentiful natural gas supplies that don’t have to be shipped across the country and even untapped geothermal power. There is a bright coal-free future waiting for this province.

So did Ontario get it right on coal? We know the vast majority of Ontarians would say “yes.” Should Alberta follow its lead? Absolutely – it has nothing to lose but smog.

Jack Gibbons is chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance. Gideon Forman is executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

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