Premier could ease greenhouse gas frustration

Alberta should phase out coal to protect climate and health

In a recent interview Premier Alison Redford expressed frustration with Ottawa’s foot-dragging on the greenhouse gas regulation file. She has good reason to feel this way. The federal government has shown an appalling lack of political will (to put it mildly) on climate-change abatement.

But now there’s a way for the premier to make significant progress on climate protection improve Albertans’ well-being and boost her popularity: phase out the province’s coal-fired electricity plants.

Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel and the quantity burned in Alberta’s six coal plants is enormous. In fact Alberta burns more coal than all the other provinces put together. In 2011 this combustion resulted in more than 40 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions — roughly equal to all of those emanating from the oilsands.

The coal plants also give off lead and mercury (brain poisons) arsenic (which causes cancer) and dioxin (an endocrine disruptor). A Costly Diagnosis — a report released in 2013 by Physicians for the Environment The Lung Association and the Asthma Society of Canada — found that Alberta’s coal plants contribute to the death of more than 100 Albertans annually. They also cause 700 visits to emergency departments and more than 4000 asthma attacks in the province each year. If one of those asthma episodes is your child’s it’s not a statistic it’s a nightmare. If one of those deaths is your child’s it’s an unspeakable tragedy.

The good news is there are safer cleaner ways to keep Alberta’s lights on. To start the province could embark on a much more ambitious program of energy conservation. Much of the supply could then come from renewable sources. The Pembina Institute says Alberta has “world-class wind and solar resources” and the research company Clear Sky Advisors forecasts that if supportive government policies were instituted Alberta could become Canada’s second-biggest wind power market.

A move away from coal would save money. A Costly Diagnosis estimates that economic damages associated with Alberta coal plants — for example health-care expenses — cost the province about $300 million a year. Over the next two decades these costs will total about $7.5 billion.

A coal phase-out would also be popular with the electorate. Recent polling from Tides Canada found that nearly 70 per cent of Alberta residents want the province to either phase out coal and replace it with renewables and natural gas or close the coal facilities altogether.

But is phasing out coal and ramping up renewables really practical? The province of Ontario is doing it. At its peak Ontario’s coal fleet was about the same magnitude as Alberta’s; by the end of 2014 Ontario will no longer burn coal to make power. As well Ontario’s new long-term energy plan predicts that by 2025 an extraordinary 46 per cent of the province’s electricity capacity will come from renewables. If Ontario can eliminate coal and in just over a decade get almost half its power from wind water sun and bio-energy surely Alberta (with a smaller population) can do likewise.

If Redford is frustrated at the pace of progress on the climate file — not to mention the wellness or air pollution files — a coal phase-out could offer just the relief she seeks. Such a policy would receive the support not only of respected health groups but also the vast majority of Albertans.

Dr. Joe Vipond is an emergency room physician based in Calgary. Dr. Raquel Feroe FRCPC is a specialist physician working in Edmonton. Gideon Forman is executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment ( cape.ca ).