The end of coal in Canada has unfurled over years.
Ontario was early: The province in 2003 pledged to eliminate coal-fired power, which supplied a quarter of its electrical demand. By 2014, coal was powering zero per cent of the province – replaced with natural gas, wind, solar, hydro and, above all, zero-carbon nuclear.
More recently, Alberta decided to also do away with coal power. In 2015, about half of the province’s electricity came from coal. Since then, spurred by policies including strong provincial rules limiting emissions from power generation, coal has quickly faded. By 2023, Alberta will be fully off coal power – seven years ahead of schedule.
In terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, doing away with coal-fired electricity in Ontario and Alberta is roughly equivalent to shutting down half the oil sands.
This month, Canada took three more big steps toward the end of coal.
The first came on June 11, at the Group of Seven meeting. Ottawa effectively banned new projects to mine thermal coal – the kind used for power. The federal government said such projects “are likely to cause unacceptable environmental effects.” The shift in policy probably dooms a proposal to more than double production at the Vista mine, west of Edmonton. The mine began exporting thermal coal two years ago. Canada’s decision follows a G7 agreement in May to end the international financing of coal-fired electricity by the end of this year. Coal power is the leading source of global emissions – almost a third of the total.
Ottawa, in a second decision, said it will more closely review all proposed coal projects for the potential poisoning of waterways with selenium. In March, miner Teck was fined $60-million by Ottawa, the largest-ever Fisheries Act penalty, for water contaminated by selenium in southeast British Columbia.
The third piece of news was unexpected. It is rare in Canada for a regulatory review of an industrial project to say “No.” On June 17, a federal-provincial panel ruled that a proposed Grassy Mountain open-pit coal mine, on the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains in southern Alberta, was not in the public interest. It’s important to note that the coal wasn’t destined for power; it would have been used for steelmaking.
All of this is happening amid shifting public sentiment. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has been a cheerleader for coal. This despite the fact that Alberta brings in barely any revenue from coal royalties – according to Alberta’s most recent data, just $9.6-million in 2019.
Mr. Kenney’s government last year quietly shelved restrictions on open-pit mines, dating back to 1976, on the picturesque Eastern Slopes. It sparked a flurry of new exploration plans – but public outrage coalesced, led by rural voices from ranchers to small-town politicians to country music singers. Alberta reinstated the 1976 policy this year, and paused exploration while it works on new rules.
In Canada and around the world, ending the use of coal for steelmaking is not technologically feasible. But the much more widespread use of coal for electric power is a different story: It’s a carbon-intensive activity that must be wound down, and can be.
A leaked United Nations report last week included warnings that a hotter planet could arrive sooner than expected. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s dire outlook underlines the essential context in which Canada is backing away from the dirtiest of fossil fuels. “The worst is yet to come,” stated a draft of the report.
The worsening effects of climate heating have become clear in the past few years, as temperatures rise, storms rage and large fires burn. No single weather event can be directly tied to climate change, but it’s worth noting that Western Canada is currently suffocating under a “heat dome.” The B.C. village of Lytton on Sunday reached a searing 46.6 C – the hottest in Canadian history, and the highest temperature ever recorded anywhere on Earth north of the 50th parallel.
Coal remains a primary threat in climate heating. The International Energy Agency in April said global emissions this year could jump by the second-largest amount ever, in part because of a global surge in burning coal for power.
Along with Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan still produce a significant share of their electricity from dirty coal. Canada has gone a long way to making coal-fired power a part of history; now we have to finish the job.
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