Ontario’s nuclear renaissance: million-tonne emission reductions, but zero payoff for McGuinty

Over the past six months, I have applauded Ontario’s recommitment to nuclear power. The nuclear renaissance in this province has already chopped twelve million tonnes per year from the province’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emission inventory—making it by far the biggest and most successful emission reduction effort since Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

I have also wondered why no one talks about this, what with Kyoto such a hot topic these days. The McGuinty government, which took a big risk by approving the Pickering unit 1 rehab project in mid-2004, deserves a lot of credit for this success. Let’s not forget the Liberals’ approval for unit 1 came hard on the heels of the cost-plagued unit 4 rehab, which the Conservatives started in 2000.

However, in spite of the success of the unit 1 project, the McGuinty Liberals have so far reaped zero political dividends.

The government’s critics say it has no plan when it comes to electricity. I think that’s wrong: they do have a plan, and it’s a good one. It’s the Liberals’ communications that are inept.

Look at this week’s hoopla over McGuinty’s latest embarrassing retreat from his pledge to close Ontario’s coal-fired generating plants. You will recall that he made this promise during the 2003 provincial election campaign. It appears the Liberals made this promise, which every expert agreed was rash and ill-considered, in a bid to win the support of anti-coal (i.e., pro–natural gas; see my July 23 post) environmental groups. These groups, unlike the T. Rex in the Jeep’s mirror in Jurassic Park, are smaller and less fearsome than they appear to Liberal strategists.

What was the basis of the promise to phase out coal? Air quality. Emissions from Ontario’s electricity generation skyrocketed after the nuclear lay-ups which began in the mid-1990s. As they rose each year, power-sector emissions became a hot topic in the province.

But now that four of those reactors have returned to service and emissions have accordingly dropped—by 12 million tonnes per year since 2000—the Liberals are well on their way to achieving Kyoto compliance in the provincial generating sector. This is a major achievement.

But instead of redefining the coal-and-air-quality issue in these terms, the premier stayed on the defensive during last week’s clamour over the coal promise. He even blamed his expert advisers for telling him the coal phase-out was ever feasible in the first place.

Well, it’s not too late for McGuinty to roll out a new communication strategy. He has lost the support of mainstream greens anyway, so why coddle them any longer.

And speaking of mainstream greens’ stance on this issue, let’s recall their response to the former Liberal federal government’s plan to purchase domestic carbon emissions at $15 dollars per tonne. They applauded it. But their silence over Ontario’s stunning emissions reductions proves they really think the price of carbon should be somewhere around zero.

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