Fact Checking the Coal Industry’s ‘Information Meetings’ in Alberta

This is a guest post by Benjamin Thibault and Andrew Read of the Pembina Institute

These are not good days for the global coal industry. There is bad news at every turn, with countless reports of “sputtering” and even falling demand.

Alberta has been a bastion for coal use in Canada. For now, the province burns more coal for electricity than all other provinces combined. But the writing has been on the wall for some time; over the long run, dirty coal-fired electricity is not compatible with credible climate change reduction strategies or with the public demand for cleaner air. These are the realities behind the province’s commitment to improve Alberta’s air quality and climate reputation by phasing out coal power pollution by 2030.

It is within this context that the Coal Association of Canada (CAC) is touring Alberta with “ACT information meetings.” But the “information” simply does not reflect coal’s stark modern reality. Let’s do some fact checking.

Coal is an egregious polluter, far beyond alternative electricity sources

In a recent article, CAC president Robin Campbell indicates his belief the provincial NDP government is scapegoating the coal industry with its Climate Leadership Plan commitment to phase out coal pollution.

Alberta has six coal plants with a total of 18 power units.

A credible climate plan for Alberta will focus on the largest sources of emission for which there are technical and economic reduction opportunities. Alberta has six coal plants of different sizes, with a total of 18 coal-fired units. One plant is a small one that no longer burns much coal. The other five plants make up half of the top 10 greenhouse gas emitters in Alberta. For the same amount of electricity produced, they emit carbon pollution at two to three times the rate of new, high-efficiency natural gas power plants, which — along with non-emitting alternatives like renewables — make coal power unnecessary today.

Coal plants make up five of the top 10 GHG emitting facilities in Alberta.

The air pollution metrics look even worse. The five coal plants dominate the biggest polluter lists for a number of the most notorious air contaminants including nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and mercury.

Coal plants also rank in the top 10 for each of the most notorious air contaminant emissions in Alberta.

The province’s two newest units are still significant polluters

According to the article, Campbell feels emissions from the province’s new-generation coal-fired plants are not as bad as the government makes them out to be. “When you look at the newest plants, the one at Genesee and the one at Keephills, there’s hardly any emissions coming out of them at all,” he writes.

Campbell focuses on these two units because they are more efficient and have better pollution controls than the other 16. When drawing comparisons to old, dirty coal plants, practically all new installations appear clean. These two new units emit nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide at about a quarter the rate as the older 16.

But they are still major sources of air pollution. They emit more than six times as much NOx as the projected emissions from a new combined cycle natural gas plant. And because neither renewables nor natural gas emit many other pollutants (i.e., SO2and mercury), even new coal units are just the cleanest players in their own dirty power league.

Rates of SO2 and NOx pollution at coal plants — both old and new — are much higher than alternative sources of electricity generation.

Alberta has serious air quality problems and coal power is a significant contributor

Campbell points to a University of Alberta study that found “coal-fired power plants had little effect on overall air quality in Edmonton.” He goes on to say. “I look at the air quality in Alberta and there's no cleaner air anywhere. So to blame it on the coal industry is just a fallacy.”

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Alberta has serious air quality concerns. Five of Alberta’s 11 listed municipalities are among Canada’s worst 25 — of 131 total municipalities in Canada — for annual mean concentration of fine particulate matter, one of the most pervasively harmful air contaminants. Edmonton and Calgary are in the worst 15, while Red Deer topped the list. Toronto came in at 36, also better than Fort Saskatchewan and Drayton Valley. This is perhaps a surprise until we recall that Toronto’s air quality has improved in the years since closing its coal plants while Edmonton’s has worsened.

Environment Canada estimates have shown poor air quality — including from coal plants in Alberta — is responsible for sending people to emergency rooms, keeping children indoors and even premature death. Late last year, the province acknowledged the Red Deer region is failing to meet a federal standard for air qualitywhile four other regions of the province are approaching limits. Minister of Environment, Shannon Phillips says she is committed to finding ways to protect Albertans from these pollutants. “We know, the science tells us, that air quality has a direct impact on human health and that’s of concern to us as a government,” she said.

The cause of fine particulate matter exceedances in the Edmonton area is secondary formation from other pollution, particularly NOx and SO2. Imaging of both types of pollutants demonstrates some problem areas of large polluters in Alberta. There are a number of different sources, but we know that electricity from coal is a major source of both pollutants in Alberta — including the Edmonton region. It is also worth noting that coal generated electricity has increased in recent years.

Air pollution in Alberta from coal-fired electricity generation.

 We need to take measures to address the whole spectrum of polluters — refining, transportation and buildings — to improve our air. For some of these sources, this means tackling over 3 million tailpipes and nearly as many building furnace flues. Clearly, when alternative electricity generation options are available already, Alberta’s handful of smokestacks must be prime targets for pollution reduction.

For too long, the former Alberta government — under which Campbell served as environment minister — donned rose-coloured glasses, ignored the problem and failed to take measures that can make us healthier. Joining international trends away from coal is not “scapegoating” or “blame,” it’s taking action in the public’s interest.

The president of the Coal Association of Canada, Robin Campbell, is currently touring Alberta. He is making a number of assertions about Alberta’s coal industry and the province’s Climate Leadership Plan. This is the first in a series of blogs by the Pembina Institute to address those claims and to reiterate the importance of Alberta’s pledge to phase out coal-fired electricity generation.

*Edit (March 14, 2016): On March 10, 2016, TransAlta wrote to the Pembina Institute to ask it to change this blog to reflect that the company did not in fact fund the University of Alberta study mentioned in the blog. Around that same date, the company changed its own webpage about the study to delete the following sentence: “TransAlta financially supported Dr. Kindzierski’s work, but had no direct involvement in the scientific investigation or the interpretation of the results.” (Original version cached as of March 9; also available as a pdf.)

Image: Thermal coal from the Genesee mine near Edmonton. Photo: Coal Association of Canada.

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