Enough with demonizing coal

The evidence disproves the claims of the ideological-driven phase-out coal campaign

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CALGARY, AB Oct 15, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Albertans have recently been told by Premier Rachel Notley that Alberta is on track to having “bad air” and that restrictions will be imposed if we don’t get our environmental house in order. Fear is a great way to control people. But fears are not facts.

Let’s look at the facts about coal-fired power plants, air quality and climate change in Alberta.

The fact is, Canada was judged as having the third best air quality by the World Health Organization in 2011 – with Calgary and Edmonton in the top 10 for best air. As Canadian environment ministers have recently decided to cut emissions standards by half, any statements about “bad air” in Alberta are due to a change in policy, not in the quality of the air itself.

Since the proliferation of coal-fired power generation in Alberta in the 1950s, our life expectancy has gone up from about 50 years to more than 80. The general health of Albertans also improved. Exceptional medical care like transplants and joint replacements are now possible, thanks to affordable, reliable power.

Health fears about coal-fired power stem from a report based on computer simulations issued by the Pembina Institute in 2013 called A Costly Diagnosis.

But when economist Dr. Ross McKitrick evaluated Pembina’s claims and calculations, he pointed out that “Before using such model predictions you need to ask if the numbers make sense . . . . (Extrapolated,) the Pembina model attributes over half the annual deaths in the province to airborne fine particulates. I find this implausible, to say the least.”

The Friends of Science Society’s report Burning Questions evaluates the evidence versus the ideology of the phase-out coal campaign. Instead of models, we reviewed about 100 peer-reviewed papers, many of them based on patient records in Alberta.

There were double the emergency department visits for asthma outside of the major urban centres of Edmonton and Calgary: as these asthma occurrences were far from coal-fired power plants, dust, residential fire places, agricultural fertilizer aerosols and natural spores, moulds and pollens are more likely sources of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) and related respiratory conditions.

Coal-fired power plants emitted only 0.4 per cent of PM2.5 in 2011. Residential fireplaces emitted double that, and wildfires emitted 1,000 times the PM2.5 of coal-fired power plants in 2011.

Diesel Emissions Particulates (DEP) do affect air quality and tend to hang suspended near the ground, meaning that Edmonton suffers from a combination of DEP emissions from truck fleets, two intercontinental rail lines, and thousands of cars. These emissions are compounded by weather conditions like dirty ridges and inversions.

International airports also contribute emissions, and Edmonton’s is fifth busiest in Canada.

But back to coal and climate change.

Evan Bahry, executive director of the Independent Power Producers’ Society of Alberta (which represents all forms of power generation, renewables and conventional), says it would cost $11 billion to transition from coal to equivalent capacity and supply from natural gas plants, plus additional unknown costs in terms of compensation and other factors.

More to the story: Benefits of coal-fired power plants outweigh nominal health risk by Michelle Stirling-Anosh

Pembina Institute is an advocate of wind and solar, both of which have tripled the cost of power in other jurisdictions. What would tripled power prices do to the cost of Alberta health care, which now stand at 45 per cent of the Alberta government budget? What of industry, which uses 75 per cent of the power in Alberta? It would cause more job loss, fewer exports.

Coal is the most affordable energy choice, and we have lots of it. If operations are well-managed, coal is a benefit to society.

Alberta’s environmental standards rank at the top in the world. Let’s stand up for ourselves. Premier Notley should start to do the same.

Michelle Stirling is communications manager for Friends of Science Society.

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