February 24th, 2020

Opinion: Coal taking a back seat to natural gas

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on February 13, 2020.

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

Too bad, coal, it looks like you’re the odd man out.

And that’s according to traditional coal allies in industry and conservative circles that are now highlighting their environmental actions that include arguments in favour of liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.

It’s likely a case of making lemonade out of lemons, but it’s also now the near official position of the Province of Alberta, as well as the federal Conservative Party.

It also flies in face of lots of talk in recent years about clean coal, the peril faced by Alberta’s coal communities and how phasing out coal in electricity production would lead to “energy poverty” across this province.

That bludgeon was used to paint the previous NDP government’s plans for an accelerated coal phase-out as ill-conceived, out-of-touch, even uncaring to the realities of average Albertans.

Now, phasing out coal use is a key talking point – phasing it out elsewhere anyway – but with the caveat that it can help the struggling natural gas sector.

Currently, Indigenous groups and their supporters are across Canada protesting work on the Coastal Gas Pipeline through northern British Columbia.

It would supply mega-projects that are planned to ship LNG to Asia. From Alberta’s view it would keep massive amounts of new B.C. gas from flooding back into Alberta where a glut has already cut the legs out from the sub-sector of the oilpatch.

It’s a multi-faceted issue, but the key point for the province and the oilpatch is the need to boost Canada’s export potential, which has faced a non-stop series of major challenges.

It is now argued that if environmentalists really cared about reducing emissions globally they’d allow gas shipments to replace “dirty coal” being burned as in China.

This comes about 10 months after now-Premier Jason Kenney slipped the the same idea and even the phrase “dirty coal” into the provincial leaders’ election debate last April.

Exporting Canadian oil and gas would the best thing Alberta can do to aid the effort to curb emissions, he said, while deriding carbon pricing or niche grant programs.

Was it any surprise that in the following federal election a Conservative Party of Canada environmental plan had a near singular focus on oil and gas exports as Canada’s crucial part to play.

It hits a lot key messages that resonate with westerners.

While it is mathematically possible (gas is cleaner than coal), it depends on China being on board. Environmentalists would liken it to giving up cigars by switching to cigarettes. But it presents at least a partial win for the energy sector.

This week Kenney also massaged his stance, telling a newspaper columnist that energy transition to cleaner fuel sources is happening, but balanced that by stating Alberta has a big part to play and it will take decades.

The premier has since argued it’s not a major position change, but such a statement would have been heresy on the campaign trail in Alberta last year.

Back then the voluminous UCP platform noted that coal-to-gas conversion of power plants in Alberta would likely continue.

The unstated benefit to the party was that market forces – low gas prices and increasingly cheap and reliable renewable technology – were driving the transition, with no need for extraordinary government interference in the power market.

A natural gas strategy of both current and recent government is that increased gas demand for power production will help rock-bottom gas prices in the province.

Another benefit is that reduced emissions and taking coal out of the mix provides the biggest, easiest win in that regard for the province with the biggest greenhouse gas footprint.

In that regard Alberta is doing its part at home.

If only someone would brag about it.

(Collin Gallant is a News reporter. You can contact him by email at cgallant@medicinehatnews.com)

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