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One of Canada’s most tangible climate targets is to shut down coal-fired power plants by 2030. Getting off coal, the federal government acknowledges, “is one of the single most important climate steps the world can take.”

However, how meaningful is that step if a coal-fired plant is transitioned to run on another fossil fuel?

Earlier this month, Nova Scotia Power announced plans to convert three coal-fired units at its Lingan Generating Station to heavy fuel oil in 2030 and keep them open for two decades after that. Elsewhere in Canada, other plants are also converting to another fossil fuel, natural gas, in lieu of coal.

Heavy fuel oil, which has a tar-like consistency and is a staple in the marine shipping industry, is a planet-warming fossil fuel. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains that “extra-heavy oils have more carbon residue and yield more high-carbon co-products, such as petroleum coke, than lighter oils. When combusted, some of these petroleum products emit more carbon dioxide than coal, with negative environmental and climate consequences.”

Natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than coal when it’s burned but is still far from being a clean energy source, said Keith Brooks, programs director at Environmental Defence. The lifetime carbon emissions from natural gas are around half of what coal emits, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The analysis doesn’t list heavy oil specifically but lists oil, which is close behind coal.

Leaks from natural gas can also make emissions skyrocket: a study set to be published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters found if natural gas leaks just 0.2 per cent, it matches coal’s environmental impact.

Natural gas is “as bad as coal” if there is any methane leakage, lead researcher and environmental policy expert at Brown University Deborah Gordon told the New York Times, which means it doesn’t work as a sustainable swap-out. Methane leaks are common in Canada from equipment as well as planned venting, as noted in a 2020 report by Environmental Defence.

When it comes to leaks, Brooks notes the main component of natural gas, methane, is an especially potent greenhouse gas. Importantly for the immediate future and upcoming climate targets, methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide for 20 years after it is released, as noted by the United Nations Environment Program.

Heavy fuel oil, nat gas, and delays: we dive into what the 4 provinces that still burn coal are planning on doing with their coal plants as their 2030 shutdown date nears. And, why the forthcoming clean electricity regulations are part of the puzzle.

But when you take stock of Canada’s plans to get off coal, many of them hinge on, or at least express interest in, a switch to natural gas or another fossil fuel. Currently, four provinces operate coal-fired power plants: Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Canada’s National Observer breaks down their transition plans here.

The Genesee Generating Station, which is about 70 kilometres southwest of Edmonton. Photo by Seersozzie via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Alberta leads the way when it comes to getting off coal. By the end of this year, the province is set to have phased all of its power plants away from the fossil fuel: way in front of the 2030 deadline.

There are two remaining coal-fired power plants in the province, and both are expected to switch to natural gas by 2024, said the office of the Minister of Energy and Minerals Brian Jean.

“Alberta is leading the way in responsible, reliable, affordable and environmentally friendly energy products — which is why we have prioritized moving away from coal power plants,” said the statement.

However, Brooks from Environmental Defence says viewing natural gas as a transition fuel — away from coal or otherwise — is a harmful distraction from real climate action.

“One reason why global warming can be feeling like it’s supercharged right now is because this methane is getting out in three to four times greater amounts than we knew … so that’s a real impact on the very near future,” he said.

“And it’s scary. Some scientists say methane is responsible for a half of the degree of the warming that we’ve experienced already.”

SaskPower’s Poplar River Power Plant near Coronach. Photo by Brian via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In May, Saskatchewan released a power generation plan, which aims for net-zero emissions by 2050: 15 years after the federal target.

At the same time, Premier Scott Moe said the province may use power stations that burn fossil fuels until the end of their lifetime, prompting federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault to say that would be against the law.

The province currently has three coal-fuelled plants: Boundary Dam and Shand power stations, both close to Estevan, and Poplar River Power Station, which is near Coronach.

In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, utility SaskPower noted two of its coal-fired power plants have expected end-of-life dates that extend past 2030: Shand Power Station (2042) and Boundary Dam Power Station Unit 3 (2044), which has been equipped with carbon capture and storage technology.

The province says it will “maintain an energy mix that ensures reliable baseload power and affordable rates for customers” as it moves towards its net-zero by 2050 goal.

“Saskatchewan’s low customer density and significant reliance on fossil fuel generating sources make our emissions reduction goals a greater challenge than in many other jurisdictions,” said Matthew Glover, director of media relations for the Saskatchewan government.

The federal government’s current environmental policies are “unrealistic and unaffordable,” said Glover. The province’s energy plan requests $6 billion from the federal government to cover 75 per cent of Saskatchewan’s first small modular reactor (SMR), along with 50 per cent “of the costs for renewable technologies and low-emitting power.”

“Plans on how to power Saskatchewan’s electrical grid into the future continue to evolve and will likely include a combination of expanded renewables, natural gas, import agreements and the potential deployment of SMRs,” he said.

“While we continue to pursue additional (greenhouse gas) emission reductions, we will not risk jeopardizing the reliability, security and affordability of our energy system.”

The Belledune Generating Station in Gloucester County, N.B. Photo by thisisaverygoodusername via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

New Brunswick is home to the Belledune Generating Station, which the provincial government wanted to operate until 2040, 10 years past the federal deadline to phase out coal. In 2021, the federal government denied that request.

To replace the 14 per cent of its energy mix the province will lose from coal, Premier Blaine Higgs’ government is betting on more nuclear power and clean energy from the Atlantic Loop, an energy corridor that would connect Atlantic provinces with hydropower from Quebec and Labrador.

However, Crown utility NB Power told Global News it is considering other fuel sources for Belledune, such as biomass, in order to extend its lifespan.

In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, spokesperson for NB Power Dominique Couture said the utility is “considering a number of scenarios to achieve a net-zero grid by 2035 and provide New Brunswickers with energy security.”

Couture didn’t provide specifics in terms of alternative fuel options for Belledune, but said NB Power’s Integrated Resource Plan — set to be released this fall — will provide more information.

Lingan Generating Station in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Photo by Ken Heaton via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

37 per cent of power generated in Nova Scotia comes from coal, and there are eight coal-fired generating units currently operating at four plants across the province.

In response to recent news that the Lingan Generating Station will transition some of its generating units to heavy fuel oil, utility Nova Scotia Power (NSP) told Canada’s National Observer the fossil fuel will only be used as a backup source of power, and that it will rely on “wind and solar, battery storage, and other generation sources.”

“The option to have heavy fuel oil available enables us to reach 80 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and meet legislated emissions targets because these units will provide backup generation when renewable energy is not available or not enough,” said spokesperson Kathryn O’Neill.

“These units would also not be used very often because they would only run when the demand for energy is at its peak.”

As of 2019, 51 per cent of Nova Scotia’s electricity generation was coal, 22 per cent was natural gas and three per cent came from biomass and geothermal energy. The utility failed to meet a 2020 goal of achieving 40 per cent renewable energy, blaming the delayed Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador for failing to provide power it was counting on. The target was pushed to 2022. NSP also missed the goal in 2023 and was slapped with a $10-million penalty. There are also delays with the Atlantic Loop.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault. File photo by Josie Desmarais

The big question is how fossil fuel plants running off fossil fuels will fit into the federal government’s forthcoming clean electricity regulations.

The Environment and Climate Change department describes the regulations as one piece in “a suite of federal measures to move Canada’s electricity sector to net zero as an enabler for broader decarbonization of the economy,” while noting many electricity systems across Canada rely on natural gas.

Abatement technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration, leave Brooks “skeptical,” as does the potential for new gas-fired power plants to be built, which Ontario is currently pushing for: the province’s electricity system operator announced new proposals had been accepted to build two new gas-fired plants in the province, and that six existing gas plants will expand their generating capacity.

“The adoption of abatement technologies and non-emitting fuels can allow utilities and others to make significant progress towards net-zero emissions. However, with the current suite of technologies, continued use of natural gas may be required especially for emergencies and in some circumstances to complement variable wind and solar, but this use should decline over time as technologies evolve,” reads the clean electricity regulations draft, which says it will use financial compliance measures — such as offsets or payments tied to the federal carbon price — to ensure the rules are followed.

Meanwhile, Guilbeault is facing opposition from premiers across the country as policies, including the clean fuel regulations, come into play.

With Ontario pitching new gas plants and some coal-burning provinces trying their best to skirt around phaseout dates, Brooks said the regulations need to be implemented soon.

“That’s a question that we have: When are these regulations going to come forward? And what level of stringency are they going to have? The other question about those regulations: Is there a kind of grandfathering clause in there?” said Brooks, referencing potential new natural gas plants and the justification to keep them open until their end of life.

In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, Guilbeault said there is “no single pathway” for provinces to clean up their grids by 2035, and that the federal government’s “flexible approach” will allow for provinces to “plan and manage their systems in accordance with relevant provincial circumstances and all legal requirements.”

The federal government recognizes there is a future role for some natural gas generation post-2035 and the clean electricity regulations will allow for its limited use in specific circumstances for limited periods of time, the statement said.

“Increased transmission lines to other provinces that have clean electricity will be critical to bring clean power to the region and support the transition to net zero,” said Guilbeault. Between 2005 and 2021, electricity generation from coal went down by 66 per cent, which — along with oil — was the most significant contributor to the 64 million tonnes of emissions eliminated in electricity and heat production during that time, he added.

“This progress puts Canada in an excellent position to achieve its commitment of a net-zero electricity grid by 2035. The proposed clean electricity regulations will be published later this year.”