Energetic questions – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (February 15, 2013)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

IN a world beset by economic challenges, Canada enjoys two advantages. Already ahead of many other countries in terms of recovery (albeit one that does not always share its wealth equally) Canada is poised to embark on a major resources boom.
In Alberta, the oilsands could quench the energy thirst of millions of people as economic recoveries look to be fuelled. In Northwestern Ontario, a remarkable series of mineral discoveries are relished globally for construction and consumer products.

However, both developments are beset by environmental pitfalls.

Beyond the question of more fossil fuel to be burned, adding to global warming, is the matter of moving Alberta’s new oil to market. The United States is poised to reconsider a plan to build a pipeline to carry the crude oil to Texas refineries amid a growing chorus of opposition in both countries.

A second round of opposition involves plans for a pipeline to ship Alberta oil to a port in British Columbia where critics point to danger to oil tankers in the port’s tricky waterway. Spills are always a potential pipeline side effect.
If neither of these challenges can be overcome, Canada stands to lose billions in potential revenue and see the United States and China drain away as customers.

The choice is crucial and dramatic. Does the energy-intensive extraction of oilsands and their incineration for power and propulsion produce increased levels of greenhouse gas? Yes. Will Canada suffer economically if we do not remove and sell Alberta’s oil to an energy-starved world? Yes. A CIBC analysis found that Canada’s inability to move its most lucrative export at world price cost our economy an estimated $19 billion last year, more than $50 million per day.

Clearly much is at stake — too much to ignore the enormous economic benefits even as research to mitigate fossil fuel burning lags behind our ability to extract it.

In Northern Ontario, exploration activity has resulted in plans for nearly a dozen big new mines. Meanwhile, the provincial green energy program will see the Northwest’s two coal-fired power plants closed next year. Conversion of the Thunder Bay plant to natural gas is stalled while officials examine the viability of an expanded east-west tie line to power this region. Local officials are worried it will be too late for the mining developments or too little to power them.

Ontario Power Generation is examining whether the Thunder Bay station could be converted to burn biomass instead of gas. OPG’s Atikokan plant is already being converted be the largest capacity, fully biomass-fuelled plant in North America. Will the plants be cleaner than when they burn coal or gas? Yes, but it takes a long time to realize the benefit. Given the growing pace of global warming, time is of the essence.

A carbon debt is created with every tree that is cut down, transported and burned for bio-energy. A carbon credit is not created until a new tree has grown to absorb as much carbon as the old one. In the meantime, biomass will increase atmospheric CO2. A report by the U.S.-based Southern Environmental Law Center found that it would take 35-50 years to provide an ongoing carbon reduction benefit.

A group of Lakehead University researchers has just received a federal grant to examine ways to minimize the environmental impact of biomass harvesting and maximize economic opportunities. The timing coincides with plans by Resolute Forest Products and Atikokan Renewable Fuels to produce wood pellets from forestry operations to feed the Atikokan generating station 90,000 tonnes of pellets annually — an enormous undertaking with challenges all its own. Add a Thunder Bay biomass plant and the ongoing wood requirements take on perhaps unprecedented proportions. The timing of the research thus is vitally important to the successful resurrection of the Northwest economy.