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Alberta’s First NDP Climate Victory May Have Nothing to Do With the Oilsands and Everything to Do With Coal

Back in March when the prospect of a majority NDP government in Alberta was still a twinkle in Rachel Notley’s eye, the to-be premier introduced a motion to phase out the province’s use of coal for electricity by 2030.

“The evidence is clear that it is time to phase out coal powered electricity in the province in Alberta. Coal is one of the single largest pollutants in Alberta. It costs our health care millions of dollars every year and is a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said, urging then premier Jim Prentice and the Progressive Conservative party to “do the right thing.”

So now that Notley has taken the reins, will she follow through with her own ambitious plan?

Too Much Attention on the Oilsands?

According to the Pembina Institute and Clean Energy Canada, although the oilsands attract the vast majority of critical attention, Alberta’s electricity sector generates nearly the same amount of carbon pollution.

“This is due, in large part, to the province’s continued reliance on coal,” authors James Glave and Ben Thibault wrote in a report called Power to Change. “At present, Alberta burns more coal for electricity than all other provinces combined."

“On an annual basis, Alberta’s coal-fired electricity releases roughly the same quantity of greenhouse gases as half of all the passenger vehicles on the roads in the entire country, in addition to health-damaging sulphur and nitrogen oxides, mercury and particulate matter,” they wrote.

Emissions by sector in Alberta. Source: Power to Change report.

Combined with extraction of oil from the oilsands, burning coal for electricity has landed Alberta in the undesirable position of being Canada’s highest emitter — by far.

In 2011, oilsands extraction processes accounted for a combined 39.8 per cent of Alberta’s industrial emissions, while power generation finished in a close second with 35.4 per cent of the contribution. In 2013, burning coal generated nearly two-thirds of Alberta’s electricity. That’s only declined slightly since.

Alberta’s Coal Riches

The thing about coal is there’s a lot of it and it’s easy to dig out of the ground.

Alberta is parked on top of 33.3 billion recoverable tonnes of the stuff, or 70 per cent of Canada’s reserves. But like the oilsands, coal extraction and combustion comes with a host of human health and environmental costs.

When burned, coal releases an enormous amount of sulphur dioxide and mercury, in addition to nitrous oxides, lead, chromium, arsenic and fine particulates that can lead to a smorgasbord of respiratory and cardiac issues.

A 2013 report found that, when combined with annual health and environmental damages, the price consumers pay for using coal power in Alberta doubles or even triples. That report estimated the average annual tab for coal-related health costs runs as high as $300 million a year.

Then there are the climate impacts.

Coal is by far the dirtiest major source of electricity in the world.

In 2011, 44 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced around the world came from burning coal, with oil accounting for 35 per cent and 21 per cent from natural gas.

The federal government has taken very small steps to deal with emissions from coal, but many existing plants will be allowed to operate for another half-century, until around 2061, with no carbon pollution regulations. So on a national level, we’re not exactly poised to deal with the problem.

Phasing Out Alberta’s Coal

Luckily, there’s a way out, already paved by Ontario (and Nova Scotia to a lesser degree): phase out coal.

If done correctly, kicking coal to the curb could save Alberta an enormous amount of money in avoided downstream healthcare costs while also kickstarting the province’s sluggish renewable sector.

What’s not to like?

First up is to acknowledge the problem. Alberta’s previous government — the Progressive Conservatives (PC) — liked to talked big about eliminating coal, but used the opportunity to give a leg up to natural gas.

The gas industry loves to tout gas as a cleaner, greened solution to coal.

But while natural gas does indeed release far less carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide compared to coal, the process to acquire the stuff, increasingly hydraulic fracturing, can have serious negative environmental consequences. Fracking is also a huge water-waster and has been known to cause accidental contamination of drinking water sources.

From a climate perspective, natural gas also doesn’t fare much better than coal thanks to methane leaks from fracking operations and natural gas transmission lines. Because methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse, heat-trapping gas, the global warming impacts of natural gas are about as significant as coal.

A study from 2014 suggested that a reliance on natural gas as a “bridge fuel” in the transition to cleaner sources of energy — as Alberta’s PCs liked to think— only delays the development of renewables and reduces emissions by a trivial amount.

Alberta’s Clean Energy Potential

But luckily Alberta has other options. The joint Pembina-Clean Energy Canada report shows the province has enormous latent potential in solar, wind and geothermal energy.

There’s enough solar potential in Alberta to meet the province’s entire annual electricity needs. According to the one study it would only take 1,746 square kilometres — or about 0.26 per cent of the province’s total land area — to do so.

But tapping into that renewable potential will take some serious policy overhaul.

The province has been sitting on a Renewable Energy Policy Framework since 2005 that could help lead the way. In 2014 the PCs gestured toward the framework, indicating renewable energy will play a role in the province’s climate change strategy, but no concrete strides were made to advance an actual plan.

But all that could change with the province’s new leadership.

Following the NDP’s recommendation of a total coal phase out by 2030 could create the kind of incentive for renewable energy alternatives the province needs.

In fact, the elimination of coal by 2030 falls into the Pembina Institute and Clean Energy Canada’s most ambitious scenario for a clean power transformation in Alberta.

Under that scenario, the elimination of coal by 2033 would require supporting a much larger share of renewable energy in the mix and would result in a 69 per cent reduction in carbon pollution from the province’s power sector.

In order for this to become a reality, however, some big deal changes will need to come on the scene in Alberta. One such change would involve accounting for the ‘true costs’ of fossil fuel extraction and consumption, so in essence, making it more expensive to burn coal for electricity. But Alberta will also need to make it more cost effective for would-be producers of clean energy alternatives.

“Meaningful policy is badly needed,” authors Glave and Thibault wrote in their report. “It could lower barriers to clean energy development and unlock opportunities to harvest the abundant and largely overlooked renewable resources that shine down, grow from, emerge from, flow over, and blow across the province.”

Notley, at least back in March, seemed to be on the same page: “It’s time to make a tangible commitment to phasing out coal, ensuring a brighter, more sustainable future for our children and our grandchildren.”

Image Credit: Province of Alberta

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University in…

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