On coal closures and straw men: Why shutting down Ontario’s coal plants wasn’t a waste of money

OPINION: A new report, and a lot of subsequent media headlines, called the wisdom of Ontario's coal plant closures into question. Here's what those arguments miss
By Gord Miller - Published on Jan 20, 2017
The now-shuttered Nanticoke coal-fired generating station on Lake Erie (Jason Paris/Creative Commons)



Conservative think tank the Fraser Institute got a lot of press this week for yet another report pitting the implementation of environmental protection measures against economic cost/benefit. This time they ask the question, ”Did the coal phase out reduce Ontario air pollution?” Predictably, the answer is no or maybe somewhat but regardless, it wasn’t worth it economically.

The basis of the institute’s concerns is the following: in 2005 Ontario announced that it was going to phase out the burning of coal in the production of electricity by 2014. At the time the province had coal plants in Toronto, Nanticoke (on Lake Erie), Lambton (near Sarnia), Thunder Bay, and Atikokan (in northwestern Ontario), producing about 20 per cent of the province’s electricity. Coal burning is a known source of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and ozone, all of which impact human health and all of which are major components of smog. The government of the day made much of the proposition that these closures would result in cleaner air and thus significant savings in health-care costs. The implication was clearly that those savings would substantially offset the costs of the technology shift. The plants were all closed by the 2014 deadline.

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The Fraser Institute study looked at the smog components in the air of Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa pre-closure compared to recently and applied a statistical model. It finds that the reduction in smog components due to phasing out coal did not have a significant impact on air quality so they conclude that the large cost of closure and changing technology was not a wise expenditure.

It didn’t say that the air quality didn’t improve. That would be difficult since there were 53 smog alert days in Ontario in 2005, a figure that dropped to zero in both 2014 and 2015 after the coal plants closed. The report argued that improvements in pollution control in the United States had had a much greater effect on air quality. And, that is probably true because the air of southern Ontario has for decades been hugely impacted by transboundary pollution from the industrial heartlands south of the border. So their point was the Ontario reductions just weren’t big enough to matter.

What intrigued me about this report was that it is the best example of a straw man argument I have ever encountered. A straw man argument is an intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than some more central argument. Let me explain what I mean.

The key argument presented in the Fraser Institute report requires the reader to accept the premise that the coal plant closures were justified in order to reduce smog in southern Ontario cities like Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa. But is this true? One can understand that the old Lakeview coal plant in Toronto must have been bad for the local air. And, Nanticoke was not that far south and west of Hamilton and Toronto so it would impact locally as well. But there were never coal plants near Ottawa so it is not clear why it was chosen. And, if the closures were mainly about reducing smog, why would it be necessary to close all four generating units at Lambton when two of those units had already been fitted with the best air pollution control available and were rated in the cleanest 1 percent of all coal plants in northeastern North America? And surely no one believed that generating stations thousands of kilometres to the northwest were impacting southern Ontario air quality. There must have been other reasons for closing all the coal plants.

And, of course there were. The coal phase out in Ontario was implemented to reduce greenhouse gases and toxic mercury emissions. And with recognition of that being the goal, the plan was eminently successful. In 2005 those coal plants emitted about 28 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide and 320 kg of mercury. At the time expensive closures were difficult to explain to a public naive about the dangers of mercury bioaccumulation and not yet fully aware of the climate change threat. These benefits were described in the proposal but it was politically much easier to emphasize modest but real smog reduction to a southern Ontario electorate.

The people got their reduction in smog days and they also got elimination of releases of the neurotoxin mercury and net reductions of CO2 emissions estimated to be about 25 Mt. The coal burning was replaced by nuclear, hydro, conservation, wind and some natural gas which, of course, has less but still some greenhouse gas emissions. The Fraser Institute report doesn’t mention mercury and doesn’t recognize the benefits that Ontario now claims by demonstrating the largest greenhouse gas reduction ever achieved in North America.

One wonders why the Fraser Institute would even bother pursuing discussions about the Ontario coal phase out. After all even if one argues that it was a bad idea, it’s done now. There is no going back. But all is revealed in the closing comments of their paper. The real target of the concern is not Ontario but the possibility of coal plant closures in Alberta based on the need for CO2 emission reductions to meet their climate change mitigation goals. Not everyone supports that initiative. Perhaps the analysis was undertaken to divert the discussion from greenhouse gases to the health impacts of smog and then, to debunk that. Clever, but it may not work out. Unlike Ontario, Alberta is not bathed in vast quantities of American nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. If they close the very dirty Alberta coal plants to reach their climate change goals there just might be some substantial collateral health benefits to the Alberta public. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

Gord Miller was environmental commissioner of Ontario from 2000 to 2015. 

Photo courtesy of Jason Paris and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence.

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