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Power Struggle Over BC's First Coal-Fired Plant

Critics say projects will pollute, fuel global warming.

Sunny Freeman 17 Nov

Sunny Freeman is a reporter pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at UBC.

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Similkameen Valley: Proposed site

Brad Hope believes his plan to leave his picturesque Similkameen Valley ranch to his grandchildren has been soiled by B.C. Hydro's plan to erect the province's first coal-energy generation plant near his home.

Hope is the chair of Save Our Similkameen, a committee of concerned citizens that joins the B.C. Teachers' Federation, the Union of B.C. Municipalities, Princeton-area doctors and nine environmental organizations in calling on the province to re-think its support for coal-fired power generation.

The committee will use funds it has collected through bake sales and donation jars to deliver hundreds of letters contesting the $200 million Princeton Power Project to Victoria on Nov. 23.

Princeton's mayor, Randy McLean, is leading the grassroots effort to pressure the government into toughening its stance on coal. He believes the estimated 40 long-term jobs and electricity for 40,000 homes generated by the project will not offset the cost of pollution to real estate and tourism in the region.

BC rich in coal

McLean says he was not consulted during negotiations between B.C. Hydro and Compliance Energy Corporation to construct a 56-megawatt coal and wood residue burning plant at the Copper Mountain site near Princeton.

In September, B.C. Hydro awarded the 30-year contract to Compliance Power Corporation, a subsidiary of Compliance Energy Corporation, as part of its 2006 Open Call for Power in the private sector. It also awarded a 30-year contract to AESWapiti Energy Corporation for a 184-megawatt plant northeast of Tumbler Ridge.

The Princeton Power Project and Wapiti Power Development Project constitute the province's first experiments with coal energy. Both projects are expected to be operational by 2010, the same year Ontario has promised to phase out its use of coal- fired power generation.

B.C.'s growing energy demands and the abundance of coal in the province are behind the government's pursuit of coal-energy generation.

The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources estimates that the 23 billion tonnes of coal in B.C. could generate about 100 times more energy than is required to meet the province's energy needs for the next 120 years. Until now, it has been excavated only for export.

In 2002, Richard Neufeld, minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, announced "the potential is huge to increase coal production for both domestic and export markets. The new energy plan is designed to facilitate that."

The government's philosophy on coal power was reiterated in its 2002 Energy for Our Future: A Plan for B.C. The plan determines "(because of) the role of coal-fired generation in B.C.'s electricity future, the province will adopt emissions guidelines for coal-fired power plants that will allow B.C. to compete for investment with neighbouring jurisdictions."

Coal firms: big Lib donors

Environmental groups say they are concerned that flexible emissions guidelines would allow the two coal-fired power plants to emit more pollution than the Sumas II power project that the Liberals opposed during the 2005 election campaign because of air quality concerns.

Wildsight's Energy and Mining Program manager, Casey Brennan, says he is not surprised that the government is "pro coal" because coal companies are top contributors to the Liberals.

"The government would love for this to go through without any trouble because they're friends of the coal industry and want to allow their friends to start burning coal," says Brennan. "They seem resentful that we're engaging the public in this kind of discussion."

Princeton's mayor is skeptical about the province's ability to balance the economic benefits of coal power with environmental and health effects. "The government owes a huge debt to the coal industry because it was the biggest contributor to the Liberal's election campaign," he says.

"There has been absolutely no public debate," the mayor says. "The government is hoping the coal-power proposals will slip in under the wire by putting plants in remote areas like a small valley where not many people live and in a place where people already make their money from coal."

However, Premier Gordon Campbell assures that "the government has fostered conversation in terms of the environmental assessments the projects go through. But it's like any conversation, you can come and sit at the table and be quiet or you can come and sit at the table and talk about it."

'Standards way too low'

Last week, Compliance Energy Corporation's CEO John Tapics was invited to engage in dialogue with a gathering of about 200 people in Princeton, where "there is very little support for the project," according to Hope.

Tapics believes "there won't be any effect on land, air or water because the company will be meeting all the provincial emissions standards." But, he adds, "it's up to the Environmental Assessment Office to take into account what the public has raised. It's not really our place."

Hope does not expect the public concern to resonate with Compliance, because "they're just trying to make as much money as they can. Our problem is not with Compliance, it's that the government has set their standards way too low."

Provincial responsibility for determining the environmental and health impacts of coal emissions is one of the few premises that critics and the corporation agree on.

"It's hard to blame the company because they're only expected to meet the standards the government sets out," says McLean. "It is the responsibility of the provincial government to raise the bar on environmental and emissions standards. I hope they raise the standards to require that zero emission coal-fired generation is enforced."

Critics of coal power say current provincial guidelines are ineffectual because they rely on self-regulation from corporations and emphasize a market-driven imperative.

The efficacy of the environmental assessment is questionable because it allows corporations to submit their own samples and conduct their own air emissions studies, says McLean.

Wood as fuel, too

Save Our Similkameen is skeptical that Compliance will be forthcoming about promises it makes during the environmental assessment, partly because requests to review assays and samples have been ignored.

Although the mine near Princeton produces export-quality coal, critics believe the plant will burn the waste coal it needs to dispose of even though low-grade waste coal emits more toxins into the air than higher-grade coal.

The terms of reference for the Princeton Power Project state that the plant will burn "up to 70 per cent wood residue," but critics question the meaning of the vague clause.

"If I was a betting man I would give really good odds that we're going to get the dirtiest coal burned in that plant," says Hope. "I know from the wood experts in town that it takes about two to four loads of wood to produce the same amount of energy as one load of coal. Are they really going to burn wood? Is that economically feasible?"

The Princeton project is in the pre-application phase of the environmental assessment, but Tapics hopes Compliance will submit its certification application by the end of the year. A 180-day review period, including 30 to 75 days for public comment, will follow.

Charges of rubber-stamping

The invitation for public comment does not consider form letters, petitions, or letters stating a position either for or against a project. The point is to identify the project's potential effects, says Brian Murphy, the environmental assessment director for the Princeton Power Project.

If a corporation complies with what is set out in the environmental assessment's terms of reference and works within current government policies, "then it gets approved by the EA office," says Murphy. "Stopping a project is not part of the Environmental Assessment Office's process. We look at the project's effects and try to prevent, minimize, or avoid those adverse effects."

B.C.'s environmental assessment has been designed to allow corporations to quickly push their projects through without the public's approval, according to Brennan.

"The EAO always issues an approval. There's never been a situation in British Columbia where a review has resulted in rejection of a project," he says.

Under the Environmental Assessment Act, a provision allows for a full public hearing on a project. However, such a hearing is unprecedented, according to Karen Campbell, legal counsel for the Pembina Institute.

Neither Campbell nor Brennan has much faith that the environmental assessment process will take Brad Hope's concerns for his grandchildren into consideration.

'Now is time to decide'

British Columbians opposed to coal are looking at how to proceed both within and outside the current government process. They want to slow down the approval process to create the opportunity for province-wide discussion on whether B.C. should burn coal.

"Now is the time to decide where we stand on coal-generated power as a province because right now we don't use any," says McLean.

In September, nine environmental organizations released a letter calling on the provincial government to include full public hearings in the environmental assessments of the province's first two coal-fired power plants.

According to the letter, the coal plants would release pollutants into the air and increase greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 1.7 million tons, or almost three per cent each year.

"I don't think the discussion should be started with these plants; we need to discuss as a province if we are going to have coal-generated power in B.C. and what it's going to look like if we do," says Karen Campbell. "The government is not calling for zero emissions or better standards on coal. In this day and age, that's completely unacceptable."

"Government regulations on mercury require a corporation to capture 75 to 85 percent of emissions. But there is no safe amount of mercury," she says.

The proposed circulating fluidized bed technology will significantly lower emissions over traditional coal-burning technology, according to Sierra Rayne, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry, earth and environmental sciences at the University of British Columbia.

"In this type of boiler, there is optimized air flow over the coal or wood being burned, with much higher combustion efficiency, which results in more complete combustion of the material, generally lower pollutant levels in the emissions, and higher power generation overall."

Even with CFB technology, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, sulphur and nitrogen oxides and mercury emissions would still seep into the province's air and water causing harm to human health, according to a statement released by Princeton-area doctors.

Alternative energy?

Some critics are calling for a moratorium on coal in B.C. and propose exploring alternative energy like wind and solar power before turning to coal.

Others say provincial dialogue should focus on exploring clean coal technologies that capture carbon and produce zero emissions, such as gasification and sequestration, and enforcing them though rigorous government standards.

Although proposals to change the course of coal in B.C. are wide-ranging, a coalition of teachers, doctors, B.C. municipalities and citizens agree in their call for an expanded opportunity for public discussion on coal.

"If the project goes ahead, it should be subject to a full, province-wide public hearing," says Karen Campbell, who spoke at Save Our Similkameen's meeting in Princeton. "I don't think the consideration should be left to the Environmental Assessment Office because their duty is to comply with insufficient provincial standards."

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