Coal-fired power and premature death: another wave of pseudo-statistics from the natural gas lobby

Last week, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance and Toronto Environmental Alliance demanded that Ontario stop exporting coal-fired power to the U.S. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty “knows that the pollution from coal-fired electricity kills Ontarians,” said the TEA’s Franz Hartmann.

Hartmann’s death-by-coal claim is based on a series of reports from a few years ago, which estimated that noxious emissions from Ontario’s coal plants kill hundreds of Ontarians every year. The basis for that estimate is the astounding discovery of statistical significance between smog levels and numbers of premature deaths.

Statistical significance. Wow. It sounds so credible, unless you’ve taken an introductory course in statistics. Every elementary textbook on the subject makes plain that statistical significance equals neither causality, nor direction of influence. All it tells you is that you probably can’t argue that there is no statistical relationship between two variables.

Any first-year stats student will tell you, after his or her first run-in with SPSS, that statistical significance is a depressingly common occurrence, especially when you are dealing with large samples.

So take the death-by-coal reports with a large grain of salt.

In spite of this, death-by-coal has underpinned some pretty important electricity investment policy in this province. Natural gas distributors, drooling over the potential billion-dollar sales of their product if the government really does ban coal-fired power generation, latched onto death-by-coal as a way of guilting the province into outlawing the competition. Their principal lobby group, the astro-turf OCAA, has been harping on that theme for ten years now.

When McGuinty & co. were back in opposition, they thought that the green lobby was an untapped source of political support. So they set about winning the greens over. They promised to close the coal plants, and in their first year in government they regurgitated the OCAA’s anti-coal nonsense almost verbatim.

Then the OCAA’s strategy started to unravel. The McGuinty Liberals did what they could to support the construction of more gas-fired plants. The problem is, with natural gas prices spiking since 2003 the only profitable way to sell gas-fired power is to sell it as peaking power or blackstart capacity. Gas-fired power could never survive in the market for baseload, which means that to replace coal the government would have to either underwrite new gas plants, or guarantee the price.

Underwriting plants was a non-starter: in a supposedly de-regulated wholesale market, new gas generators would have to sink or swim. And though guaranteeing a certain price might be reasonable for intermediate or peaking power, it would be hard to justify in the case of baseload. Either way, the price of power would go up, creating a real political problem for the government. Was there an alternative to gas or coal for baseload? Of course there was: nuclear power.

The OCAA thought it had the anti-nuclear base covered, through its alliance with Greenpeace and other fanatics whose antipathy for the atom overrides their alleged concerns about climate change. But after governing for a while the Liberals realized that wiping out a quarter of an electricity system’s generating capacity in order to please a corporate lobby on one hand and a gang of Monty Python fanatics on the other isn’t responsible policy.

So, rather than shifting baseload generation to gas, the government decided to restart the Pickering unit 1 nuclear reactor. Together with concurrent restart projects involving other laid up reactors at the Pickering and Bruce plants, this would prove hugely successful—not only in keeping the lights on, but also in chopping power-sector emissions on a grand scale.

Now we have a power sector whose emissions were 15 million tonnes lower in 2006 than in 2003. Regardless, the anti-coal, anti-nuke crowd still sucks and blows. Some things never change.

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[…] like its previous complaints, Ontario’s most recent go-round repeats the spurious claim (see article) that coal emissions kill thousands of Ontarians each year. And set aside also the fact that […]