Public-health groups and environmentalists are urging the federal government to move aggressively to close down coal-fired power plants over the objections of provinces that plan to rely on them well past 2030.
The Liberal government wants to accelerate a phase-out of facilities that burn coal to generate electricity as part of a pan-Canadian climate strategy it is negotiating with the provinces and territories, sources told The Globe and Mail this week.
While Alberta plans to shutter its coal plants by 2030, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick will keep several open past 2040, which is allowed under regulations the former Conservative government passed four years ago.
Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, in particular, say they need coal generation even as they substantially increase the amounts of electricity they get from renewable sources and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in their power sectors.
The Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) applauded the federal plan on Friday, saying coal pollution has been associated with lung and heart disease, autism, cancer, and developmental issues in children.
"While utility operators in [Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick] reportedly oppose an earlier deadline that might result in an increase in hydro prices, they seem willing to accept the ongoing serious damage being inflicted on the health of taxpayers as a result of coal-fired power plants in their jurisdictions," Ian Culbert, the association's executive director, said in a release on Friday.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna confirmed on Friday that the government is talking with the provinces about speeding up the phase-out of coal, but said any such effort would be done in a "thoughtful way" and offered no timelines.
"Clean electricity will not only reduce our emissions, but help improve air our families breathe and reduce smog days while creating new jobs and investment opportunities for Canadians," she said in an e-mailed statement.
The CPHA was among several health groups – including the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Lung Association – that provided a joint submission to a federal-provincial climate working group that met this summer.
They urged Ottawa to require all coal-fired power plants in Canada to be closed by 2025 to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other harmful pollutants.
Coal-fired power was responsible for 8.4 per cent of Canadian GHG emissions in 2014, although that will drop dramatically under federal and provincial policies that would cut coal use by more than 90 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels.
The Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental group, said an accelerated national coal phase-out would be an important part of Canada's effort to meet or exceed its commitment to reduce GHGs by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
"The economics of coal are increasingly clear: When accounting for full costs like those [health costs] borne by society, coal is not competitive," Pembina said in a statement on Friday.
Nova Scotia says it is one of the provincial leaders in GHG reduction, cutting emissions by 29 per cent since 2005 and on track to reduce them by 43 per cent by 2030. But it adds that it needs to maintain some coal-fired power until 2042 or it will be forced to build gas-fired plants.
Saskatchewan says it will increase renewable sources to 50 per cent of total supply by 2030, and is investing heavily in technology that captures carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas – from existing coal-fired plants.
The Canadian Electricity Association, which represents the country's utilities, said on Friday an accelerated phase-out would not only be costly in the medium term, but could be counter-productive over the longer term.
"Accelerating the retirement of coal assets could result in higher GHG emissions for decades if it drives a near-term shift to natural gas rather than a mid-term shift to renewables," Francis Bradley, the association's chief operating officer, said on Friday.
"We must not sacrifice long-term environmental success at the altar of short-term political gain," he said.