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Obama’s move on coal puts pressure on Harper to address coal, oil and gas

Coal plant

Environmentalists are welcoming President Barack Obama’s new regulations on power plants in the United States and there are suggestions that his move may put new pressure on the Harper government to address carbon emissions from both coal-fired plants and the tar sands in Canada.

The Guardian reports, “The Obama administration [has] unveiled historic environment rules cutting carbon pollution from power plants by 30%… Power plants are the largest single source of carbon pollution, accounting for nearly 40% of the emissions that cause climate change. …The rules could affect 1,600 power plants. About 600 of these operate on coal, including many that are nearly 50 years old and will have the most difficulty meeting the new standards. Under the rule, states and power companies will have a range of options to meet the new standards: switching from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas; forming cap-and-trade markets; expanding renewables such as wind and solar power; or encouraging customers to use less energy by moving to more efficient heating and cooling systems and appliances.”

Coal-fired power in Canada

CBC reports, “Electricity generation, particularly from coal-fired plants, produces the largest portion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. …Figures from 2010 suggest that even though coal plays a smaller role in Canada’s electricity generation, it was responsible for 77 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions out of the power sector and about 15 per cent of the country’s overall emissions. …Only a few provinces continue to use coal, though it continues to be a substantial energy source for landlocked Alberta and Saskatchewan. Nova Scotia is working to reduce its reliance on coal-fired plants, while Ontario shut down its last plant in early April. Still, more than 60 per cent of the electricity for Alberta’s public grid comes from coal, while it’s about 39 per cent across the U.S., according to 2013 figures.”

Harper’s regulations on coal weaker than Obama’s

The CBC news article highlights, “In 2012, Canada set out regulations for its coal-fired power plants. Environment Minister Aglukkaq said those regulations will reduce emissions by 46 per cent by 2030 over 2005 levels, compared with the U.S.’s 30 per cent reduction. However, environmentalists suggest the rules for Canada pale in comparison with this week’s U.S. announcement. Any coal-fired unit that begins producing after July 1, 2015, must be equipped with carbon-capture and storage technology that brings its emissions down to that of a high-efficiency natural gas plant. Existing units must only adhere to the emissions rule once they reach their end-of-life, usually about 45 to 50 years.”

Oil & gas the big culprit in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions

“In Canada, the biggest emitter is the oil and gas industry, which produces one-quarter of emissions. …Environment Canada says one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 came from the oil and gas sector. By comparison, electricity accounts for 12 per cent. …Canada has promised to regulate the oil and gas industry for years, but the regulations have been delayed.” The Globe and Mail adds, “The Conservative government has pledged since 2006 to issue regulations for Canada’s oil sector, but it has repeatedly delayed them – most recently last December, when Mr. Harper said they would take a few more years.”

New U.S. pressure on Harper to curb emissions?

“U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman, in his first speech since taking office in April, noted the U.S. move unveiled Monday to cut emissions from coal plants by 30 per cent by 2030. And then he called for more action, including on Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions, oil production.” But, “In the Commons on Monday, Mr. Harper sought to ensure the comparison between the two countries is about how each treats coal-fired power plants, rather than how each is dealing with greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Still, the Globe and Mail concludes, “Now that the Obama administration is acting on coal, it will likely take a more aggressive attitude to new international climate negotiations to be held in Paris next year. And as it attempts to push major emerging economies such as China and India to further action, it could press Canada to do more, too.”

The Council of Canadians

In August 2011, we signed an open letter along with 40 other organizations that states, “In our view, all coal-fired power plants need to face regulations to, at a minimum, reduce their considerable emissions of greenhouse gas pollution. Given the need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in both the short and long term, it is simply no longer acceptable to build new conventional coal plants in Canada, period.”

We have also called on the Harper government to commit to an emissions reduction target of at least 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. The 40 per cent emissions reduction target is in keeping with the call for atmospheric carbon to be stabilized at 350 parts per million. We have also stated that Canada’s fair contribution to climate adaptation for the Global South should be $4 billion yearly. And we have argued for inclusion and a democratization of the climate change negotiations process.

Food & Water Watch

It should also be noted that Washington, DC-based Food & Water Watch common resources director Mitch Jones cautions, “Under the proposal, power plants, mainly coal-fired plants, would have to reduce their carbon emissions. One way the electricity companies would be allowed to do this is by switching from coal-fired plants to gas-fired plants. The EPA still considers gas a cleaner fuel than coal, because they don’t count the full life of fracked gas. …While there is hope that this proposal would spur development of wind and solar, the fact is that the cheap alternative to coal is fracked gas. With Chevron and BP recently announcing that they are abandoning their wind and solar efforts, the writing is on the wall: the energy industry has decided that fracked gas is the alternative.”

Food & Water Watch is calling on its supporters to “Submit a comment asking the EPA to not allow the rule to be finalized in a way that allows fracked gas to replace coal.”

Further reading
Harper disappoints on coal-fired power plant regulations
Will 2015 be the “world’s last, best chance” to address climate change?