In Break From Trump, Trudeau Speeds Canada’s Coal Phase-Out

  • Environment minister says expanding clean power creates jobs
  • Two Emera Inc. facilities among four affected by move

Canada Plans to Phase Out Coal Power Plants by 2030

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is speeding up Canada’s planned elimination of traditional coal-fired power plants, doubling down on green pledges as its top trading partner moves in the opposite direction.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Monday the country would phase out traditional coal power by 2030, an acceleration of existing measures the government says affects four facilities in Canada not already facing retrofit or shutdown by then. They include two facilities in Nova Scotia owned by Nova Scotia Power, an Emera Inc. subsidiary, and one each in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick owned by provincial crown corporations. Hours after after the announcement, however, Nova Scotia said it was in talks to allow its plants to keep operating.

Canada, which already draws 80 percent of its electricity from non-emitting sources, is pressing ahead with plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions amid warnings from Trudeau’s political opponents that doing so will create a competitive imbalance with the U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said during the campaign he wants to back out of climate pledges and boost coal production.

“Phasing out coal-fired electricity and expanding clean power sources will create new jobs and opportunities,” McKenna told reporters in Ottawa. Eliminating smog caused by coal power generation will also reduce health impacts, she said.

Trudeau has unveiled a series of environmental measures in recent months, including a minimum price on carbon and expanded funding for marine protection. His centrist Liberal Party is trying to balance demands of environmental advocates with spurring economic growth. Trudeau faces deadlines to decide on three pipeline projects over the next month.

Carbon Capture

The change essentially requires coal plants to meet a tougher emissions standard -- 420 metric tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt hour -- more quickly than previously scheduled, unless they adopt carbon-capture technology to cut emissions. If they convert to natural gas, they need only meet a 550 metric ton standard until 2045, when the tougher standard kicks in. McKenna also said she’d work with provinces on equivalency agreements, leaving the door open to keep coal plants running if emissions cuts are found elsewhere.

Though Nova Scotia is pursuing such an arrangement, the federal government nonetheless projected the move will see Canada generate 90 percent of electricity from non-emitting sources by 2030. It will also cut emissions by 5 metric megatons, the equivalent of taking 1.3 million cars off the road, according to government estimates.

For its part, the U.S. relies on coal-fueled power plants to generate about 30 percent of its electricity, with that share set to grow slightly next year, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.

America’s share of power generated from coal may not diminish any time soon, either. Trump has vowed to overhaul “job-killing” rules, such as the Clean Power Plan, a rule by the Obama administration designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from generators 32 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. That regulation is currently under review by a federal appeals court.

Provincial Differences

Coal power represents about 8 percent of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions, the government said. It accounts for about 11 percent of the country’s electricity, concentrated mostly in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and also in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, according to a report issued Monday by the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank.

“We applaud the federal government for its timely and necessary commitment,” Pembina executive director Ed Whittingham said in a statement. Eliminating coal power “is one of the world’s best opportunities to improve air quality and fight climate change.”

Alberta and Saskatchewan are major oil producers reeling from the impacts of a commodities slump. Alberta has already pledged its own coal phase-out -- a move the federal government has, in effect, now backstopped -- while Saskatchewan is balking at Trudeau’s earlier announcement of a minimum carbon price.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall criticized Trudeau for again preempting a December meeting with provincial leaders, where a pan-Canadian climate strategy is due to be discussed. “These actions have severely undermined the December meeting and have exposed the Prime Minister’s disingenuous commitment to federal-provincial collaboration,” Wall said in a statement.

Industry reaction was also negative. “It’s going to put people out of work, there’s no doubt about that,” Robin Campbell, president of the Coal Association of Canada and a former Alberta cabinet minister, said Monday in an interview with Bloomberg TV Canada. While calling the government’s openness to carbon capture “a positive,” he estimated at least 45,000 jobs would be lost across Canada. “I just don’t buy into the fact we’re going to create all these green jobs.”

Alberta Plants

Alberta has six coal power plants the province intends to close or retrofit by 2030 that now also face a federal deadline, the Trudeau government said. They include three units at Capital Power Corp.’s Genesee facility, including one unit owned jointly with TransAlta Corp.; two at Atco Ltd.’s Sheerness facility, each owned jointly with TransAlta; and one at TransAlta’s Keephills facility, owned jointly with Capital Power. The federal measures would still apply to those plants in the event Alberta’s government changes its plans.

Talks with the power plant owners are ongoing and details will be revealed “very soon,” Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips told reporters Monday. “We don’t expect this will change much for us,” Phillips said.

Ontario -- Canada’s most populous province -- phased out coal over the past decade. Air quality has improved while electricity rates in the province have roughly doubled. McKenna said the government was “working to ensure” the coal phase-out in other provinces does not increase rates and provided no further details.

The federal government didn’t announce new funding for provinces to shut down coal power. Earlier this month, however, it announced billions in new funding for unspecified green infrastructure, as well as the creation of an infrastructure bank. Phillips suggested Alberta may seek funding to switch away from coal. “It does open up a space for the federal government to have conversations with us,” she said.

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