Take some plant material, bury it beneath layers of sediment, wait millions of years for heat and pressure to build and presto — you’ve got cheap, readily available, energy-generating coal.
Even though coal remains one of the most commonly used and important methods of generating energy across the world, several Canadian environmental groups and health experts, say it’s time to move beyond the Industrial Era staple.
The debate is ongoing in several provinces, with implications not just for Canadians but also for coal-producers worldwide.
At the beginning of this year, Ontario – Canada’s most populous province – became the first jurisdiction in North America to ban coal-fired energy production, shutting down all such plants in the province.
Ontario Power Generation, which provides electricity for more than half of the province’s nearly 13 million residents, shut down its five remaining coal-fired plants in 2013, according to Neal Kelly, the utility’s director of public affairs. He said the utility continues to generate the required electricity using zero-emissions methods including biofuel, wind and solar, without any decrease in electricity generation.
The utility is looking to convert existing generators to biomass or advanced biomass operations in the coming years.
Other Canadian coal critics are pushing for a similar move elsewhere.
Using Ontario as inspiration, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and Alberta health groups are advocating for the elimination of coal-fired plants elsewhere.
Noah Farber, executive director of the National Asthma Patient Alliance based in Toronto, said documented health problems associated with coal are well-researched and numerous.
“Coal plants are a major source of toxic air contaminants including mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter,” Farber said. “These contaminants released into the air through the burning of coal have been linked to respiratory conditions, including asthma.”
Studies have also identified coal as harming all the body’s major systems and contributing to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States: stroke, heart disease, cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility.
But supporters counter that there are health benefits to coal.
Electricity and running water can prevent poverty and thousands of deaths, according to the World Coal Association, London-based industry group.
“Access to energy is essential to addressing the problems that cause poverty,” according to the association’s Energy for Sustainable Development report. “After food and shelter, energy is one of the fundamentals of modern society. Without energy, people cannot access the opportunities provided by the modern world,”
For Paula Williams, founder of Communities and Coal in Alberta, the fight against coal began out of concern for her children’s health.
Founded last June, the group advocates banning the importation and transportation of U.S. thermal coal into British Columbia. Watching train cars carrying millions of tons of powdered black coal roll past schools and suburban neighborhoods prompted Williams to help others understand the negative aspects of coal.
“The data shows coal is dangerous and there is no reason in this day and age to have coal-fired plants,” she said.
Williams acknowledges the difficulties in halting production altogether, particularly because of how influential and pervasive the industry is in Canada. Instead of focusing on coal-related concerns nationwide, she said her group is focusing on eliminating coal importation into Alberta, though she supports efforts to diminish the use of coal across the country.
Recently closed coal plants in Ontario:
- Thunder Bay Generating Station
- Nanticoke Generating Station (Largest coal-fired power plant in north American, used to be one of Canada’s top ten greenhouse gas contributors)
- Lambton Generating Station
- Atikokan Generating Station (Converted to wood pellets)