Last Thursday, the government of Ontario filed comments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding proposed changes that would relax rules governing emissions from U.S. coal-fired electricity generating plants. The provincial Liberals say, as they have said all along, that emissions from U.S. coal plants drift into Ontario, harming the province’s citizens and economy.
Never mind that, 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 Ontario’s premier refused, at last week’s conference in Moncton, to consider tailpipe emission standards—even though Ontario motor vehicles are by far a bigger source of more dangerous pollutants than U.S. or Ontario coal plants. He’s worried about coal plants hundreds of kilometers from Toronto but doesn’t care about the hundreds of thousands of cars emitting carbon monoxide literally meters from where humans inhale it?
Regardless of its flimsy and hypocritical basis, Ontario’s complaint will attain instant credibility if and when a public nuisance lawsuit against a U.S. greenhouse gas emitter is successful. So far, the public nuisance lawsuits against coal-based U.S. utilities have failed. But the cumulative effect of the actions will be to entrench in judges’ minds the quantity of emissions coming out of the stacks. Emissions consist almost entirely of carbon dioxide (CO2). Though it is toxicologically innocuous, CO2 is also the principal man-made greenhouse gas. It belches out of smokestacks in quantities measured in the millions of tonnes. Environmentalists have, successfully, lobbied to classify CO2 as a pollutant. This makes it perfectly legitimate for them to say there are millions of tonnes of pollution coming out of the stacks of coal-fired power plants.
When a public nuisance action succeeds, there will be major implications for the power generation industry. Most utilities know this, and are scrambling to develop responses in advance.
They should look at Ontario. Ontario’s stunning success in reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants—15 million tonnes less in 2006 than in 2003—is the best example of how to deliver utility-scale power without emissions. It was achieved by displacing coal-generated baseload power with nuclear power. The atom is our way forward.