Addressing “misperceptions” about Canada’s coal power regulations

Blog - Sept. 7, 2012 - By P.J. Partington

On Wednesday, the federal government announced its finalized regulations to limit climate-warming pollution from coal-fired power plants. As we had anticipated months ago, the final regulations don’t go nearly far enough to help Canada keep its climate change and clean energy commitments or safeguard ourselves, and our children, from coal pollution.

It is widely apparent that the final rules are significantly weaker than the approach first announced by Minister Prentice over two years ago, and then detailed in draft last summer by Minister Kent. Despite this, Minister Kent put criticism of the final regulations down to a misunderstanding of sorts: “I think the suggestion the regulations have been softened or weakened is a misperception,” he told media.

In the spirit of clarity, lets address a few of these so-called “misperceptions.”

Are the regulations weaker than the draft proposed last summer?

Unequivocally, yes. In many important ways the final regulations are less stringent than the draft.

In particular, the level of the performance standard was loosened from 375 to 420 tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt-hour (tCO2/GWh), meaning that each regulated plant can now pollute more per unit of electricity that it generates. For a new 450-megawatt (MW) coal-fired unit, this softening of the standard would allow it to pump 7 million more tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere over its lifetime.

Another — and more significant — weakening of the final regulations is to allow existing units to operate even longer before they face emissions limits. The draft regulations allowed every coal unit built before July 2015 to operate for 45 years from the date they are commissioned before being subject to the regulations. However, the final regulations soften this already weak target and allow the majority of Canada’s coal plants to operate for a full 50 years before they need to take any action, whatsoever, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This may not sound like much, but giving an extra five years of unfettered pollution to most of the country’s coal units is nearly the same as building four new ones. Figures 1 shows the emissions reductions estimated from the final versus draft regulations to 2050.


Was it necessary to weaken the regulations to protect the power supply?

Minister Kent claimed that it was necessary to relax the level of the performance standard to avoid "putting the consuming public at risk of inadequate power supply. That 375 ... would have been applicable only if, in the coal-fired electricity sector, plants operated at a steady productivity. In reality, plants go up and down in the generation of energy depending on demand."

This is not true. While most coal plants in Canada function as base load supply (meaning they operate at full capacity for most of the time), the 375 level was chosen arbitrarily to require performance as good as a modern natural gas plant, but not for any specific technical reason. Moving to a standard of 420 tCO2/GWh simply means that plants that opt to install carbon capture and storage (CCS) do not need to capture quite as much of their emissions as if the standard were at 375.

A new pulverized coal plant with CCS can achieve emission rates far lower than those required in the regulations, on the order 115 tCO2/GWh. In fact Saskatchewan is attempting to do just that with their Boundary Dam project. It is clear this decision has much more to do with setting a precedent for future gas-fired electricity regulations rather than anything it has to do with CCS.

Either way, this change would have no impact on security of supply as no unit would have to meet this standard until 2025. This is because getting coal to either 375 or 420 requires CCS, and any unit planning to apply CCS can defer compliance until 2025. Clearly, the middle of next decade is far enough away that utilities are able to ensure that we’ll have enough supply to keep the lights on.

Do these regulations make Canada a leader in addressing coal power?

Some have suggested that, despite their flaws, these regulations are still among the most ambitious in the world when it comes to reducing coal emissions.

Sure, many countries have a lot of work to do when it comes to addressing coal power, but does that excuse us doing less than we can? Or should it encourage us to be leaders and show them how it’s done?

One needn’t look far for such leadership; Nova Scotia and Ontario are reducing their reliance on coal faster than these regulations require, with Ontario phasing out coal completely. By 2014, before the federal regulations even take effect, Ontario will have shut down nearly 7300 MW of coal-fired generating capacity, with expected emissions reductions of about 30 megatonnes. By our estimation, it will take until at least 2040 for the new federal regulations to achieve what Ontario will accomplish by 2014.

Tackling emissions from coal power is one of the world’s biggest challenges when it comes to fighting climate change. Of all the countries in the globe, Canada is surely one of the best equipped to lead. We have phenomenal renewable energy resources and expertise and a prosperous, innovative society ready to do its part. If we say it’s A-OK to burn coal for 50 years without emissions limits — even if that means until the 2060s — then who is to tell India or China that they should be more ambitious?

Simply put, the world will need better leadership than this if we’re going to prevent dangerous climate change and clean the air we breathe.

P.J. Partington
P.J. Partington

P.J. Partington was a senior analyst with the Pembina Institute's federal policy group until 2015.


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