Photo: flickr/Paul Jerry

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In a rather rare political episode on January 16, elected members from all major political parties agreed that coal-fired power needs to be phased out in Alberta. The MLAs were invited to talk about their positions on phasing out coal at a panel organized by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), the Asthma Society of Canada and the Centre for Health Promotion Studies EcoPath.

While most of the world is following trendsetting action to phase out coal-fired electricity and help combat climate change and reduce its negative impacts to people’s health, the ruling government in Alberta is still, in a sludge-like fashion, lagging behind.

Alberta burns more coal for electricity than the rest of Canada, accounting for more than half of sources on the grid. Taking also into account the tar sands are the fastest growing source for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the country, the province is not looking so great on the national and global stages and there’s some answering to do.

The feds have a set target to reduce GHG emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 (even though tar sands emissions are expected to near quadruple by then), and although weakened and hardly ambitious, federal regulations are now in place to start limiting the building and life spans of conventional coal-fired power plants. Europe just set out to cut its carbon emissions by 40 per cent for 2030, with 27 per cent of energy coming from renewables. Ontario is pulling its last coal-fired power plant off the grid this year.

The world will be focusing its climate-lens gaze on Alberta as the province hosts the World Economic Forum on energy and climate change April 24-25. At the Forum, the provincial government is expected to “highlight the important work Alberta is undertaking in energy and environmental policy, innovation and technology.”

Pressure is also progressively coming from within Alberta from folks calling on the government to pick up the steam and actively address commitments to reduce its reliance on the dirtiest and most harmful form of electricity.

At January 16 panel discussion, newly appointed Associate Minister of Electricity and Renewable Energy Donna Kennedy-Glans stated that the PC government is going to do “something” to reduce the province’s reliance on coal.

The other MLAs at the forum — NDP environment critic Rachel Notley, Liberal health critic David Swann, and Wildrose environment and utilities critic Joe Anglin, all expressed the idea that “something” isn’t anything without plans, programs and policies for action.

But the action that opposition and concerned environment and health groups are hoping for is not likely to be the same action that Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government will be undertaking.

Kennedy-Glans’ said that change should come through private sector intiatives, but then undermined that vision by saying that private sector couldn’t meet that need in the “near future.” To eliminate coal-fired power within ten years, she said, other power-producing projects would need to exist and ultimately, she can’t see that happening — Alberta exists in a market-based environment, and it has to decommission coal-fired power in a way that “lights won’t go off.” She said the market must respond, without adding new publicly funded alternative projects. She wants the private sector to come in and fill the gap, shifting the responsibility to power consumers. But in speaking for a government that believes in a free market, she didn’t appear to place much faith in that market’s response.

NDP environment critic Rachel Notley said the government has become a communications arm for heavy-weight stakeholders like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, TransAlta and other industrial, commercial interests of the province. She continued by saying that Albertans “need a government that’s not simply measuring its success on the basis of how much money a small group of corporations are able to pay out to their shareholders.”

Alberta’s deregulated electricity market is unique in North America. However, MLA Anglin indicated that while transmission and distribution are regulated, unregulated generation is highly rigged: “Big coal plants have power-purchasing agreements that guarantee them cost-recovery…Alberta’s Market Surveillance Administrator (MSA) calls the market an oligopoly because they’re manipulating the system…and this needs to change.” Another factor that contraditicts the Alberta Government’s free-market ideology is that the fossil fuel industry continues to be highly subsidized, through tax incentives and royalty reliefs.

Swann and Notley both mentioned the need for a level playing field for renewables and energy efficiency initiatives in Alberta, support for public incentives and subsidies to help get wind and solar on the ground. Alberta’s power purchasing agreements with its 11 coal-fired power plants are set to expire December 31, 2020. The need for less costly renewable electricity alternatives is evident.

Opposition and NGOs have also been pointing out the need to account for such external costs in a full-cost accounting application. Last March, the same organizations that organized last week’s panel, along with the Pembina Institute and the Lung Association of Alberta and Northwest Territories, published the report, A Costly Diagnosis: Subsidizing coal power with Albertans’ health, outlining the health and environmental costs associated with burning coal for electricity: health impacts annually cost $300 million and climate change impacts range from $1.1 to 4.5 billion.

Phasing out coal doesn’t necessarily mean higher prices. Solar power has become much cheaper, even cheaper than coal, most notably when including transmission costs, health, and environmental ‘externalities.’

However, old king coal can’t be vanquished that easily. The government’s Building Alberta Plan promises to “open new markets to Alberta’s resources to ensure we’re able to fund the services Albertans told us matter most to them.”

Even if Albertans demand the government stay on task and shut down coal in the province, corporations and companies will be seeking to sell elsewhere — for steel and electricity production. They will be exporting health and environmental costs to those with less stringent regulations.

Alberta remains the only province in Canada without a renewable energy strategy and new Associate Minister Kennedy-Glans still sits without a mandate letter. Plans for a strategy are said to be in the works.

While the battle of for-profit vs. environmental and social interests is ongoing, some remain hopeful. For in Alberta, the government’s admission of a need to phase out coal can be counted as significant.

However, will current pressures be enough to hold politician’s feet to the fire to make substantial changes and will the PC government be able to boost its credentials in taking action on climate change with a straight face at the World Economic Forum?

Unfortunately, the political will to make the urgent changes needed seems to be lacking. The action plan for transitioning away from fossil fuels will certainly be different than in Ontario or Nova Scotia, and while the “free” market has to be accommodated here, individual, community and cooperative based initiatives must also be supported.

The real hope lies with Albertans who must realize that they have the power to make positive change. Community dialogue, education, engagement and mobilization are tactics that work. As MLA David Swann stated, “it’s time to turn up the heat on the government and threaten the credibility of elected representatives and government if they fail to act in our long-term public interest.”

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Sheryle Carlson is the communications coordinator for Public Interest Alberta. You can watch the video of the January 16th Political Panel on phasing-out coal in Alberta here.

Photo: flickr/Paul Jerry