Days before the October 2011 Ontario provincial election, the incumbent Liberals were forced to cancel a carbon-belching gas-fired power plant construction project in Mississauga. Community opposition was loud and pointed enough to tell the Liberals, who held the electoral district in which the plant was sited, that they had better cancel it or lose the seat. So they did, at a reported cost of $190 million.
A similar community backlash killed a 900-megawatt gas-fired plant in Oakville in 2010. The site was also in a Liberal district. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know the cost of that cancellation. There are apparently secret documents that spell it out in dollars and cents, but the Liberal premier of Ontario, who heads a very precarious minority government, has asked the opposition parties to not spill the beans just yet, for fear of somehow driving up the cost of cancellation, which provincial taxpayers will have to bear.
These two cancellations are yet more of what economists call externalities: costs for goods and services (in this case, gas-fired electricity) that are not reflected in the prices. Of course we don’t know exactly what the price of gas-fired electricity is either, since it is, like the cost of cancelling the Oakville gas plant, a secret.
There are other externalities to gas-fired power, in addition to the costs of cancelling the Oakville and Mississauga plants. The two most serious of these other externalities are human casualties and waste. Very few people to my knowledge have tallied up the human cost of using natural gas, which is not only explosive and volatile—a recent weak earthquake in California ruptured a gas line and caused an explosion; see article—but also a significant source of indoor carbon monoxide (CO), from pilot lights on numerous indoor appliances such as stoves, furnaces, and clothes dryers.
Carbon monoxide is the world’s most prolific toxic killer. More than 400 Canadians died of CO poisoning between 2000 and 2007, according to a CBC report; who knows how many hundreds more suffered permanent brain damage. Over 400 human beings died annually in the U.S. in the 5-year period from 1999 to 2004, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In the U.K., CO poisoning incidents tripled in 2011, mostly during the winter months. Gas use is on the rise in the U.K., thanks in part to concerted drives by environmentalists who would rather take high casualties from gas than non-existent casualties from nuclear-generated electricity.
The other serious externality to gas-fired power is waste. Gas-fired generators are physically unable to manage their waste, which is mostly carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal greenhouse gas. Combustion of natural gas produces lots of CO but even greater amounts of CO2. Because gas-fired generators cannot manage this stuff for even an hour, they must dump it into the atmosphere. For an example, gas-fired generators in Ontario dumped 17,186 metric tons of CO2 into the air between midnight on September 16 and one-thirty p.m. on September 17. That adds up to literally tens of millions of metric tons each and every year.
If we were to attach a dollar value to those externalities, the price of gas-fired power would of course skyrocket. The only question is, how high would it actually get. As I mentioned, we do not know with certainty what the price of gas-fired power in Ontario is. I estimated in “Ontario nuclear power subsidizes gas and renewables” that it is somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 cents per kilowatt-hour—nearly three times the price of nuclear-generated power, which is in most cases a matter of public record.
The self-appointed “green” lobby in this province wholeheartedly supports natural gas, which to repeat is a carbon-belching fossil fuel. Strange that that crowd is so silent as the Liberals, who have enacted large parts of the “green” energy platform out of gratitude for green support in elections, pay the political price of gas.
With friends like that, the Liberals—and the environment itself—don’t need any enemies.