Ontario cuts coal, while BC looks for more

It may be the industrial heartland of Canada, but Ontario took a major step forward this week by announcing all its coal fired generating plants would shut down, while in ‘super natural” BC the province is preparing to increase its coal mining and shipments.

On Thursday, the Ontario government announced it is taking the final steps to reach its goal to close all provincial coal burning facilities, including the Nanticoke Generating Station – the largest coal-fired electrical generating plant in North America. And the government has announced a permanent ban on all coal-fired electricity from the province, making Ontario the first jurisdiction in North America to do so.

When burned, coal is one of the greatest generators of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, which contributes to climate change.

“Our work on eliminating coal and investing in renewables is the strongest action being taken in North America to fight climate change,” says Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne. “I believe we can work together as stewards of our natural environment and protect our children, our grandchildren and our fellow citizens.”

Ontario once generated 25 percent of its electrical needs from 19 coal-fired units that will all be closed by the end of December. In its place, Ontario has been aggressively building and supporting renewable energy projects for the past four years, including wind, solar, natural gas and other energy projects that have created an estimated 31,000 new jobs in a growing energy sector.  

 “It is heartening to see the tremendous progress that has been made here and it is my hope that others will quickly follow suit,” said former US vice president and Climate Reality Project leader Al Gore in Toronto Thursday.

In British Columbia, coal is rarely used to generate electricity. BC Hydro relies on coal only when it needs to import energy, usually from Alberta, during peak demand periods. Electricity in BC is generated by hydroelectric dams including the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and others around the province. But despite this non-reliance on coal as energy, BC is still emerging as a global leader in the world demand for coal and coal has become a dominant industry within the province.

“We’ve been mining coal in this province for the past 100 years,” says Alan Fryer, spokesperson for the Coal Alliance in BC which represents mining, shipping and railway companies. “We’ve been shipping from mine sites to terminals to overseas safely and sustainably for years. This is an important part of the province’s economy.”

In 2011, the BC coal industry generated $3.2 billion to the provincial GDP and added $715 million in tax revenue. More than 26,000 people work directly or indirectly in the BC coal industry making an average wage of $95,000 according to the industry’s Price Waterhouse Cooper economic impact study in 2011. Ten mines operate in BC and several more are in the planning process.

In Vancouver, where Mayor Gregor Robertson hopes to create the Greenest City in the World by 2020, two coal terminal expansion plans are taking place just outside the city borders. In North Vancouver, Neptune Terminals is expanding its facility to accommodate more coal shipments. And along the Fraser River, Port Metro Vancouver is considering a contentious application to approve a new coal handling and offloading facility at the Fraser Surrey Docks. If approved, the movement of kilometer-long coal trains will increase dramatically through a number of communities, many of whom have already come out against the expansion. For many city councils, health concerns about coal and its impact on the environment locally or globally are trumping economic considerations.

“Even China recognizes that it needs to get off coal and is investing rapidly in renewables,” says Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence. “Relying on revenue for highly polluting forms of energy like coal will get riskier and riskier as more jurisdictions at home and around the world shift to renewable energy to power their homes and their economies.”

“Transitions to new forms of employment and economic activity must be done justly and society must share the task of doing this with those who bear direct costs. The longer we put off doing this, the hard it will be on these communities,” says Gray.

Alan Fryer says the move by Ontario is laudable in the fight against climate change, but Ontario was burning coal to generate electricity. The coal being dug out of the ground in BC and shipped overseas is different.

“What people need to understand about BC is that most of the coal mined in our province is actually steelmaking coal; metallurgical coal that is an essential ingredient in the making of steel. That is what most of our coal is used for. It is not burned to produce energy.”

“In BC, we believe steel making coal is not only an essential ingredient in making steel but is also an ingredient in ultimately reducing greenhouse gases,” says Fryer. “As we shift to wind or solar power, those are steel intensive technologies. They take a lot of steel and steelmaking coal to produce. And same thing as cities like Vancouver ... looking at investing more money in mass transit, in high density housing and so on. Again, all of these projects, like mass transit that is taking tens of thousands of cars off the road all require a great deal of steel which in turn requires a great deal of steel making coal.”

Fryer says with more coal planned to be shipped from BC, the Coal Alliance welcomes the debate around that growth. He says there are legitimate concerns being raised by people who live in proximity to the railways or terminals where expansion could take place. However, not all of the concern being raised is reasonable.

“You have what I would call ‘anti-development’ groups who have sort of glommed onto issues of noise and coal dust and so on,” says Fryer. “I don’t think they really care about these issues. Their stated goal is to leave coal and most of all fossil fuels in the ground. We feel, given the realities, that that’s an extreme position and probably out of step where most British Columbians stand on the issue.”

The Coal Alliance was formed to combat a growing sentiment in BC against coal. Fryer says there was a lot of misinformation being spread and it was important that the industry take part in the debate and get the facts out so people can make up their own minds as the debate over coal continues in this province.

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