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Clock running on another Liberal promise

McGuinty government will be hard-pressed to shut down coal-fired plants by 2007

Toronto Star - August 11, 2004
by Ian Urquhart

The clock is ticking on a key commitment by the provincial Liberals — to shut down Ontario's coal-fired power plants within three years.

The commitment was right there in the Liberals' election platform last fall: "We will shut down Ontario's coal-burning power plants by 2007 and replace them with cleaner sources of energy."

Not "we'll endeavour" or "we'll make every effort" but "we will."

In committee hearings at Queen's Park this week, Energy Minister Dwight Duncan reiterated this commitment and the rationale behind it. (The five coal-fired plants — owned and operated by government-owned Ontario Power Generation — are a major contributor to air pollution, which causes some 1,900 premature deaths a year in Ontario.)

But Duncan added this important qualifier: "We will never put Ontario consumers in jeopardy, and will be totally satisfied that adequate alternatives are in place before we shut down the coal plants."

The problem is that the coal-fired plants account for about 7,500 megawatts of electricity, or one-quarter of the province's supply of power, and there is no quick or cheap alternative to this highly polluting fuel.

Conservation, yes, and the government is making all the right noises in this area. But no one seriously believes it will make up for all the electricity generated by the coal-burning plants. The government's conservation target is to reduce demand by 5 per cent, not 25 per cent.

Renewable energy (wind, solar, etc.), fine. Here, too, the government is making strides. But it is currently seeking proposals for just 300 megawatts of renewable power.

Nuclear power is another option, but it is controversial, with most environmentalists opposed to its use; expensive, with past projects experiencing huge cost overruns; and time-consuming, with no prospect of a new plant being in place by 2007.

Natural gas? It is becoming more expensive by the day and there are growing doubts about its availability down the road.

All of which leaves Duncan and the Liberals between a rock and a hard place.

Sensing this, the opposition pounced on Duncan at this week's committee hearings.

Conservative MPP John O'Toole called the Liberals' campaign promise to shut down the plants "irresponsible" and added: "It's a laudable goal. But is it an honest commitment?"

O'Toole was joined by NDP Leader Howard Hampton, who suggested the 2007 deadline was unrealistic and told Duncan: "All you've got to offer the people of Ontario is a hope and a prayer."

(An aside: the attack by Hampton was somewhat surprising because the NDP's own platform made the same commitment to phase out the coal-fired plants by 2007. But, said Hampton in committee, "I told members of the media ... that the goal of 2007 was already too ambitious. I told them that during the election campaign.")

The guessing here is that the government won't come close to meeting the commitment to shut down all five coal-fired plants by 2007, and the Tories and New Democrats will have one more broken Liberal promise to gloat about.

Failing to meet the commitment would also cause problems for the Liberals on another front: the Kyoto accord on climate change.

The accord commits Canada to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 240 megatonnes in the next four to eight years.

It is not clear what Ontario's share of this will be. Heretofore, the federal government has been reluctant to assign responsibility on a province-by-province basis.

Queen's Park and Ottawa signed a memorandum of understanding in May that commits the two governments to "co-operate" on the implementation of Kyoto.

Talks continue between the two governments: Provincial Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky is to meet her federal counterpart, Stéphane Dion, two days from now, and one of the issues under discussion is just what Ontario is obliged to do.

"We need to understand what the expectations are," Dombrowsky said in an interview this week.

But the usual rule of thumb in Canada is that Ontario's share is 40 per cent.

With respect to the Kyoto accord, that would mean 96 megatonnes. Closing the coal-fired plants would get Ontario almost halfway there. However, the provincial government may want federal help to reach that goal without unduly punishing the Ontario consumer.

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