From coal to gas [Ring of Fire and Other Mining Implications] – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (November 24, 2010)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario. This editorial was originally published on November 24, 2010.

For an extensive list of articles on this mineral discovery, please go to: Ontario’s Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery

AS ONTARIO continues its onerous but ultimately necessary march toward cleaner air it is stepping into increasingly difficult territory. Its so-called green energy proposals are proving costlier all the time, and while no one should expect to reduce greenhouse gases and begin to reverse climate change without complications, Ontario seems to be making things more difficult for itself than it needs to.

This realization can be seen in every retreat from and change in its green energy policy, most recently to offer rebates on soaring electricity bills and alter an ill-thought-out time-of-use pricing plan.

Consumers are enraged at the proliferation of charges over and above basic electricity while lucrative contracts signed with alternative energy suppliers seem unnecessarily rich, given the fact that demand for electricity is going nowhere but up.

Ontario’s latest step is this week’s announcement that the Ontario Power Generation coal plant in Thunder Bay will be converted to natural gas. In maintaining an important industrial facility and its jobs in Thunder Bay, the converted plant is expected to generate up to 150 million kilowatt-hours of electricity — about the same as at present — enough to power 15,000 homes each year. In addition, emissions from the plant will be cut in half.

Clearly, this is good news. And it makes available power that is quicker to produce than from coal when demand peaks or when wind or solar power are limited on calm or cloudy days.

But the Thunder Bay and Atikokan plants together with area hydro dams already produce more power than is required in Northwestern Ontario. One hopes that saving this plant together with new and proposed wind turbine projects in the area are necessary to power all the new mining developments under way north of Thunder Bay — and a chromite processing plant to make stainless steel from the Ring of Fire development and ship the finished products from here to buyers throughout the world.

Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid spoke this week of “replacing dirty coal with cleaner renewable sources of power.” Natural gas is not renewable. Canada had 57.9 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of proven natural gas reserves in 2009. At an annual production rate of about 6.6 Tcf — half consumed here, half exported to the United States — there are some nine years of proven reserves left. Conventional gas production in Western Canada has already peaked and new production will centre on coal bed methane and shale gas deposits in the West as well as Arctic and offshore sources — all of which come with considerable exploration and extraction difficulties, not to mention the fact the McKenzie pipeline still has not been built.

Consumers should not expect savings directly related to the improvement of the Thunder Bay facility. As more gas is used and costlier sources developed, the price will rise, and not just the price paid by generating stations. Homeowners using gas will not be protected from the law of supply and demand.

Given that the overriding goal of provincial energy policy now is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the halving of pollutants from the Thunder Bay station is impressive and important. But there remain emissions from any burning of fossil fuels.

According to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, in 2005 the Thunder Bay Generating Station released 1,150,029,000 kilograms of greenhouse gases to the air along with 7,480,756 kg of smog-causing pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, and 103,844 kg of toxic pollutants like mercury that can cause contamination and health effects.

Cutting these outputs by half cannot come soon enough since many such pollutants interact in the atmosphere and some reactions are affected by higher temperatures such as occur from climate change.
When Ontario’s coal phase-out is complete, it will represent the single largest greenhouse gas emission reduction in North America — the equivalent of removing almost seven million cars from our roads. Thunder Bay and Atikokan are leading this process and that’s a source of province-wide pride.