Just what future is there for coal?

November 23, 2016   ·   0 Comments

IT SEEMS ALMOST WEEKLY that we learn of something else that indicates Canada and the United States will be moving in opposite directions once Donald Trump has taken over the U.S. presidency.

In Canada, we heard last week that the federal government had decided that coal should be abandoned as a power source by 2030, 10 years earlier than had been anticipated, and that all the provincial governments, with the exception of Saskatchewan’s, had agreed on some form of carbon tax or cap=and-trade scheme designed to reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

But south of the border, President-elect Trump has declared that there is no such thing as human-induced climate change and therefore no need to cut back on coal-fired power production.

We’ve also been hearing again of “clean coal,” which environmentalists contend is an oxymoron but is a significant part of Mr. Trump’s response to such critics and seemingly a way of re-employing thousands of laid-off coal miners.

There’s certainly no doubt that coal no longer plays the role it once did in Canada.

Those readers old enough can remember a time when most of the homes in places like Orangeville and Shelburne had only two sources of heat – coal and wood – and nearly every house had a coal shute and a pile of anthracite in the basement near the furnace, which had to be stoked morning, noon and night. The hard coal from northeastern Pennsylvania reached southern Ontario by rail or a combination of rail and ship, and was delivered on CPR freight trains to coal sheds by truck from the sheds to homes.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that heating oil started to displace coal, and still later that natural gas from Western Canada arrived on the scene.

Today, with no coal-fired power plants left in Ontario, the only places we know of where coal is still used are Tottenham and Gravenhurst, where it powers the South Simcoe Railway’s two steam engines and the Muskoka Lakes cruise ship Segwun.

We guess only time will tell how widely divergent the paths taken by Canada and the U.S. will be. All we know now is that at a time when the use of coal has been phased out for power production in Ontario, has never factored much in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia, and now is going to be curbed everywhere else but Saskatchewan, it continues to produce almost half the electrical energy consumed in the U.S., mainly because it is cheaper than natural gas and far cheaper than “green” energy.

Critics of the Trudeau Liberals’ campaign to reduce the use of coal say imposing carbon taxes and/or moving to wind and solar power will simply drive industries out of the country.

However, much will depend on whether the Trump administration will do more than simply allow more and more use of ordinary coal for power production, arguing that all the alternatives will simply increase the price of electricity.

As for “clean” coal, billions of dollars have been spent on research and many more billions would be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants and build new plants designed to be less serious polluters.

Estimates of the nationwide costs of implementing clean-coal technologies in U.S. coal-fired power vary widely. A Wall Street Journal article cited by Wikipedia said Credit Suisse Group estimates that $15 billion needed to be invested over the next 10 years for it to play an important role in climate change. The International Energy Agency says $20 billion is needed, and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change says the number could be as high as $30 billion.

There’s precious little hope of such spending ever taking place in Trumpland.

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