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Environment

​Albertans Want to Phase Out Coal, But Don’t Like That It’s an NDP Plan

Albertans are down with the benefits of ditching the most damaging method to keep the lights on, but are nervous about losing jobs.
January 13, 2016, 9:08pm

A lovely day for a coal plant. Photo via Flickr user UniversityBlogSpot

In the beginning was the Coal, and the Coal was with Alberta, and the Coal was Alberta. Through Coal all things were made; without Coal nothing was made that has been made. Then the Devil, disguised as a serpent which itself was disguised as Premier Rachel Notley, seduced Albertans and stole Coal, the birthright of Albertans, condemning all four million of them to rampant unemployment and slow death by hypothermia and/or starvation.

That's more-or-less the gist of the commentary that's been rudely splattered across the pages of many Albertan newspapers since the government's decision to gradually shut down its 18 coal-fired power plants (which collectively contribute about 55 percent of the province's electricity and almost as much carbon dioxide as the oilsands do, not to mention the sulphur dioxide and fine particulate matter and all that gunk) and replace 30 percent of total electricity demand with renewable-generated power by 2030.

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Take Barry Cooper, the University of Calgary political scientist affiliated with the anti-climate change organization Friends of Science, who moaned in a recent Calgary Herald column that "there was nary a mention that we are sitting on an 800- to 1,000-year supply of the stuff." Conversely, there was nary a mention in his column about the devastating environmental and health impacts that would come from burning that much coal, and that carbon capture and storage (his apparent solution to all related problems) is still prohibitively expensive and riddled with design flaws.

Read More: One Man's Mission to Overthrow the Alberta Government

But according to a new poll commissioned by a left-leaning but non-partisan organization called Progress Alberta and conducted by Abacus Data, most Albertans are surprisingly down with the goal to completely phase out coal-fired power by 2030. This could be very good news for the rest of Canada. For if Alberta—the land of separatists and the shooting of wolves from helicopters and rich white men trying to bypass political process with bribery—can learn to love reasonable climate policy then maybe the rest of the country can too. Many argue that coal is the centrepiece of rapidly cutting emissions in Canada.

Duncan Kinney, the executive director of Progress Alberta, says: "The data really shows that people believe in this climate change plan and believe that the coal phase-out is a good idea. A lot of Albertan politicians have talked about economic diversification over the decades. This is the single biggest step towards economic diversification that any Albertan government has ever put forward."

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The polling data, collected from 1,000 Albertans between Dec. 2 and Dec. 7 and released today, shows a decisive endorsement of the benefits of a coal phase-out: improved air quality (75 percent in favour), the establishment of a fund to help coal-driven communities to transition (79 percent), and the potential acceleration of investments in solar and wind and other nifty renewable sorcery (66 percent). But when the poll zoomed out to ask more generally about the NDP's policies, something curious happened: only 48 percent of Albertans backed the phase-out of coal.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Photo via Notley's Facebook.

So to reiterate: Albertans like the benefits of ditching the most damaging method to keep the lights on and Teslas rolling (besides literally slaying whales to burn their juicy blubber), but don't care much for actually going forward with plan, fearing the potential short-term cost of job losses and slightly increased electricity costs even though the government has announced policies to mitigate both those problems. Robert Gifford, professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, dubs the situation as the "as long as it doesn't hit me in my pocketbook" effect.

Gifford—renown for his chronicling of how 34 "dragons of inaction" deter people from acting on environmental issues—expresses an "honest empathy" for those who will lose jobs as coal plants shut down. Yet he expresses confidence that history shows how occupations ranging from icemen, to typewriter manufacturers, to goddamn pony express riders lost their professions to the forces of creative destruction but managed to somehow recover by finding work in other industries.

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"There is short-term pain for some individuals who lose their jobs," he says. "But with innovation, there's going to be new jobs that are more aligned with a green economy."

Some places are taking the news better than others. The mayor of Hanna, Alberta has voiced complaints that almost 200 people would lose jobs as a result of the decision, but that town's where Nickelback came from so fuck them, end of story. (Editor's note: Hanna also home to the greatest mustache in hockey, so it's not all bad.) The mayors and reeves of 30 Albertan towns also penned an open letter to the provincial government in mid-November to request postponing coal phase-out, as if the world wasn't on the verge of ecological collapse due to catastrophic climate change, et cetera.

Stephen Lindop, mayor of Devon (a town of 6,000 people just outside Edmonton), says the phase-out is inevitable and the sooner the better: "I can understand that they're concerned if they're ratepayers and their citizens are going to be hurting," he told VICE. As representatives and leaders of those communities, of course they want to cushion that blow as much as possible. But I think once you step back and realize that we are in a period of transition, there are more opportunities they're not seeing right now. The future is better than I think they believe right now."

Devon, like Banff and Medicine Hat, has already started to take steps to incentivize solar technology. Logistically, it makes sense, given that southern Alberta is one of the sunniest places in the country. Lindop says his town has already identified over a dozen municipal buildings that could feature photovoltaic panels (the town's community centre already boasts 393 panels). Costs on solar technology have also plummeted in recent years. Now, it's really a cost-benefit challenge: Lindop points out the town's costs will eventually be fixed as "the cost of the sun is not going up."

Some experts, like University of Alberta political scientist Ian Urquhart, contend the 2030 deadline isn't soon enough and the province should pursue more aggressive goals. He suggests Alberta should have followed to model set by Washington state, which forced coal plants owned by TransAlta (a Calgary-based electricity company recently busted for pulling an Enron-inspired price fixing move) to close by 2025. In addition, Urquhart notes TransAlta isn't receiving any compensation for the accelerated phase-out (Alberta may have to offer compensation to two plants), and is required to invest in renewable energy in the state. After all, by the time the plan's completed, Alberta's emissions will only be stabilized, not reduced in any meaningful way.

"The history of climate change legislation in Alberta is one that has forever essentially staked out this position that 'we're really not part of the problem,'" he says. "Quite frankly, Albertans have bought into the notion that reducing greenhouse gas intensities was actually a positive way of addressing climate change, nevermind the fact you're actually emitting more greenhouse gas emissions."

But there's a silver lining to this all. In addition to conservatives hating the phase-out of coal-fired power plants, the most notable trend in the polling data is that far more people between the ages of 18 and 29 (58 percent) support the move compared to those over the age of 60 (44 percent). In short, young people tend to care more about buying electricity from a source that won't give their kids respiratory issues rather than shovelling even more profits into the hands of rich people who unwisely invested in a dying industry. That trend might matter even more as old people experience a phase-out of their own.

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