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Power lines criss-cross over the street at Merivale and Carling. [Photo © Sima Shakeri]

Alberta’s Environment Minister, Shannon Phillips, says the province plans to move ahead with shutting down its coal-fired electricity plants despite a study released by the Fraser Institute in January that shows a similar move in Ontario resulted in billions of dollars in excess spending and made little to no difference in air pollution.

“It’s a report from an outfit that’s known to produce appraisals that come from a certain right-wing ideology,” Phillips said. “Comparisons [between the provinces] are made by people who either don’t understand the electricity systems in Ontario and Alberta, or they’re deliberately trying to mislead the public.”

The report, which focuses attention on “particulate matter” – little bits of toxic material released into the air from burning fossil fuels – also suggests claims made by the provinces on the health benefits and cost savings resulting from the phase-out of coal are difficult to assess and come from assuming “very large health effects associated with very small changes in air pollution.”

But Phillips, who played a key role in negotiating the $1.3 billion deal with energy producers to close the province’s 18 coal-fired power plants by 2030, says facts about the health benefits of cutting out coal are indisputable.

“We relied on data that was released by Environment Canada that supported the federal regulations to phase out coal – which was, of course, brought in and passed by Mr. Harper’s government,” said Phillips. “Analysis shows we’re avoiding a thousand premature deaths, 871 ER visits and health outcomes valued at almost $3 billion in benefits between 2015 and 2035.”

Phillips also takes issue with the report for ignoring the environmental benefits of removing millions of tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the air each year. She says that while such factors may not have been part of Ontario’s decision to phase-out coal, they were always a major consideration in Alberta’s plans to move toward a greater reliance on natural gas and renewable energy.

“When I took over as environment minister, Alberta’s GHG trajectory – the line – went straight up in the graph and now it’s stabilized,” said Phillips, referring to the NDP’s efforts to cap industrial emissions. “Is this going to happen overnight that we reduce Alberta’s emissions, per capita emissions and so on? No, it won’t happen overnight, but it’s happening.”

Exactly how much this shift in policy will cost, however, remains largely unknown. Unlike Ontario, which set fixed prices for renewable and nuclear energy when phasing out coal, Alberta has chosen to adopt a market-based approach where companies bid for energy contracts in a competitive process.

While this means the actual cost of replacing coal in Alberta is unknown, Phillips says it will lead to lower prices through greater competition. She says it will also help Alberta avoid skyrocketing energy costs like those seen in Ontario, which saw $132 billion in unnecessary spending over a 20-year period, according to the province’s auditor general.

GHG reductions cannot be ignored

Ontario Energy Minister, Glenn Thibeault, says that while his government’s decision to phase-out coal has put upward pressure on electricity rates in the province – a fact no one can deny – the Fraser Institute report fails to acknowledge the scope of improvements made to Ontario’s environment and air pollution levels over the past decade.

“It’s really no surprise to see the right-wing Fraser Institute and well-known climate change skeptic, Ross McKitrick [the report’s author] argue against reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Thibeault. “But the overwhelming consensus is clear – from climate and health experts both in government and in independent organizations – the closure of coal plants in Ontario has resulted in significant reductions in air pollution and improved the lives of Ontarians.”

Thibeault cites a 2016 report prepared by the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator that shows CO2 emissions from electricity generation in Ontario fell from 35 megatons in 2005 to seven megatons in 2015 – a reduction of 80 per cent.

He also notes a 2012 study prepared by the Ontario Power Authority and endorsed by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment that shows output of dangerous pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur dioxide have fallen by as much as 95 per cent – a fact the Fraser Institute ignores.

“Smog days have been reduced from 53 in 2005 to zero in 2015,” said Thibeault. “Blackouts and smog days put our economy and our people at risk. Ontario’s government is focused on fixing that problem – taking that dirty, unreliable electricity system and making it clean.”

Report should not be overlooked

Carleton University environmental engineering professor, Amir Hakami, said that the report should not be dismissed. [Photo © Sima Shakeri]

While climate scientists seem to agree the Fraser Institute report is flawed and should not be used as the basis for setting public policy, some feel the report does highlight relevant questions – particularly with respect to the cost of phasing-out coal and whether cheaper alternatives, as the report suggests, could have produced similar results.

“The question the report is trying to get to, and I think it’s a legitimate question, is weather the cost associated with the [phase-out] was the best option in terms of the return on the investment,” said Amir Hakami an expert in air pollution and public policy and the associate director of the Ottawa-Carleton Institute for Environmental Engineering.

“I don’t think either the Government of Ontario back then — or this report — has done a good enough study to answer that question in a proper way.”

Despite obvious shortcomings, which include failing to consider GHG emissions and the use of statistical models that don’t accurately represent the effects of coal on air pollution, Hakami says it’s likely a proper scientific study would yield similar results to the Fraser Institue report – meaning it’s possible that reductions in air pollution comparable to phasing-out coal could have been achieved by installing clean-coal technology as the Fraser Institute suggests.

Still, Hakami says there’s no question that shutting down coal-fired power plants reduced air pollution and GHG emissions. But just because doing something is beneficial, doesn’t mean it’s the “most beneficial,” he says.

“Nitrogen dioxide is being associated with mortality and that is probably a significant burden in terms of air pollution in Canadian cities – or in even rural areas,” Hakami said. “Power plants do create quite a bit of [pollution], but so do cars and transportation. So then the question is which one are you going to target to have an optimal policy?”

Data shows coal phase-out slashed GHG emissions

A 2016 report published by Environment and Climate Change Canada shows that Ontario, which accounts for roughly 16 per cent of Canada’s industrial GHG emissions, has seen the largest total reduction in emissions of any province since 2005, a decline of more than 45 per cent.

The report also shows that of the 37 megatons of GHG emissions eliminated by Canada’s utility sector over the past decade, 28 megatons came from reductions in Ontario alone.

Jack Gibbons, chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, an organization that worked closely with the government during the coal phase-out, calls this move the single largest GHG reduction effort in North America’s history – noting it’s the equivalent of removing more than seven million cars from the road.

“The coal phase-out was supported by the PCs, the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens because it was the most cost-effective option,” Gibbons said. “They did this despite the fact that the coal phase-out was strongly opposed by the Fraser Institute, which is located in beautiful B.C — a province which has no dirty coal plants and a virtually 100 per cent renewable electricity grid.”

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