Low Expectations for Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s High Emissions

The summer of 2010 was a bad year for Saskatchewan. Record floods, winds, and hailstorms led to 175 communities declaring states of emergency, and costing the province over $100 million. “The Summer of Storms” also made it the worst year ever for insurers, with $100 million in crop insurance payouts.

Premier Brad Wall, a man once described by Maclean’s as “standing athwart history yelling ‘I’m not sure about this!’” responded to the string of natural disasters with a telling quote: “The one thing the province cannot control is the weather,” he said.

Unfortunately for Saskatchewan, the type of extreme weather that cost it so dearly in 2010 is symptomatic of what models predict for the province under a changing climate.

Sure enough, extreme weather was yet again making headlines and shutting down entire cities in 2014.

On carbon emissions, the province is Canada writ small: both are small emitters in their larger contexts, yet large emitters per capita. Saskatchewan is the biggest carbon source per capita in the country, with three quarters of the province’s energy coming from coal and natural gas, although it plans to reduce that to 50 per cent by 2030.

Wall’s philosophy on climate change appears to be to downplay the significance of actual emissions while encouraging innovation in Canada that can be exported to larger emitters — tackling carbon on a larger scale than what can be done in the Canada’s relatively small arena.

Frustrated during last year’s Paris climate conference by his characterization in the media as being out of step with the rest of the premiers, he defended his province, saying he was actually offering a solution: carbon capture and storage (CCS). His flagship endeavour in this regard is the CCS facility at SaskPower’s Boundary Dam coal power station, which he regards as a model for the world’s developing nations as they bring more and more coal-fired plants online.

“We can talk all we want about cap and trade or carbon taxes in Canada, but we’re three per cent of global emissions,” he told Alberta Oil Magazine before the Paris conference. “So why don’t we, as Canadians, decide to lead the world and develop technologies that can be applied in places like China and India and Indonesia and Europe where coal is being turned on right now?”

The Saskatchewan government hypes the Boundary Dam project for capturing 90 per cent of the emissions from one of the station’s units. However, what is captured doesn’t all stay that way; some is lost in the capturing phase and some is sold for use in oil extraction, meaning that only about half of what is captured is actually stored on a permanent basis when the CCS process is working — which it only is about 40 per cent of the time.

Reducing part of a coal power station’s emissions by almost a fifth, however, is still no mean feat if it can be done in a way that would encourage emerging economies to follow the example, i.e. by being cost-effective.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case: the economics of the CCS technology at Boundary Dam have not borne out, and given that the project is projected to lose about a billion dollars over its lifespan, energy reporter David Roberts called the $1.47 billion price tag a “very high carbon tax” on provincial and federal taxpayers as well as anyone paying for power in Saskatchewan.

Perhaps, then, it’s because the province already has a de facto carbon tax that Wall has promised to refuse to sign any carbon tax put forth at this week’s premiers’ meeting.

He has consistently criticized the idea of carbon taxes, worrying that the money would be directed into federal coffers (like the equalization payments his province already pays), and that the low price of oil is already hitting the oil industry hard.

His stance that oil companies are too fragile to support a carbon tax, however, is undermined by industry statements like Suncor CEO Steve Williams’ assertion last year that he believes “a broad-based carbon price is the right answer.”

Wall nearly missed the 2015 premiers’ meeting because his province was on fire, but decided to attend at the last minute to make sure the other premiers knew that “oil and gas is not something we should be ashamed of.”

It appears his message will remain the same this year, fighting the rest of the premiers and the federal government on behalf of an industry that seems to itself be coming around to the other side of the argument.

If the premier can’t control the weather, in other words, he could certainly benefit from knowing which way the wind blows.


Jimmy Thomson is a freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe and…

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