Dalton McGuinty: the clean energy premier who covered up a proud environmental record

Ontario’s premier of nine years has been forced to resign, and that is because he embraced the wrong green policies more publicly than he embraced the right ones. As I have argued many times since beginning this blog, Dalton McGuinty could have and should have pointed at every opportunity to his proudest environmental achievement: the reduction of Ontario’s annual electricity-related greenhouse gases (GHGs) by more than half. That would involve pointing to the cause of that astonishing GHG reduction: the return, during McGuinty’s tenure as premier, of six of the province’s nuclear generators to service.

Those six nuclear units, representing roughly 4,000 megawatts of zero-carbon capacity, are the following:

  1. Pickering unit 4, returned to service in September 2003.
  2. Bruce 4, December 2003.
  3. Bruce 3, January 2004.
  4. Pickering 1, November 2005.
  5. Bruce 1, earlier in 2012.
  6. Bruce 2, less than 24 hours ago.

Each of the above returns-to-service was a shining opportunity for the premier to point to another major tangible step in reducing Ontario’s electricity-related GHGs. No other jurisdiction in North America had this kind of bragging rights. In addition to this, each successful return-to-service represented another job well done by a peerless workforce of nuclear experts, skilled and experienced in Canadian technology.

However, instead of hyping the incredibly good news of a return to service of a major, proven source of emission-free power, the premier elected to ride the wave of seeming popular support for wind turbines and solar panels into a reputation for being green. In making this decision, he was badly misled. Wind turbines take up enormous amounts of land. That land is not available in cities, so the turbines had to go into rural areas. The problem was, the people who live in rural areas hate wind turbines, for a variety of very strong reasons. To implement the wind part of his green strategy, McGuinty had to write legislation that forced the turbines into unwilling communities. That cost him his majority government in the October 2011 Ontario provincial election.

At the same time, knowing that wind turbines are more for “green visibility” than for actual electricity, the premier had to build new power plants that run on a politically correct fuel. Nuclear is decidedly politically incorrect according to those who urged the premier to cover gas with wind. So the premier was forced to promise the gas-green crowd that he would put a cap on the amount of new nuclear added to the system. Instead of adding more zero-carbon nuclear, he would go with carbon-heavy natural gas.

But it turned out that the communities in which the new gas plants were to be sited were about as crazy about gas-fired power as rural communities are about wind power. i.e., not very crazy about it. In fact, diametrically opposed to it. Why? Because when there’s a gas leak in a single home in a residential neighborhood, city blocks are evacuated. If a small gas line going into a single home can be that much of a threat, how much of a threat would a giant gas line be going into a 900-megawatt generating plant?

So two of the gas plants that were to quietly furnish the power-vacuum left with the departure of coal ended up being cancelled, because they were in Liberal ridings and the opponents of the plants threatened to go political if the plants went ahead. McGuinty really had no choice. He could not afford to lose those seats.

But back up a bit. He also did not have any choice but to site the plants in those communities in the first place. He needed gas-fired power, because that was the only power that would please the pseudo-environmentalists who demanded a cap on nuclear capacity. Nuclear capacity could have been doubled at two of the three nuclear sites, totally obviating the need for any carbon-spewing gas plants.

I think that that is where the strategic mistake was made. McGuinty was a true leader in clean energy. He approved the restarts of the Bruce and Pickering reactors, which slashed Ontario electricity GHGs in half. He should have hyped that record, because it is one to be proud of. It involves no spin, no smoke and mirrors. He could have pointed to publicly available facts.

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10 years ago

Steve, thanks for your ongoing good illuminating comments on Canadian energy.

You and I met for coffee when I was very early in this job. Let’s do it again now that I know a little more.

John Stewart
Director of Policy and Research

10 years ago

There was a commentary piece in the Globe and Mail that in fact criticized McGuinty for what for what author referred to as letting AECL slip away by letting the feds sell it to SNC. I am not sure I feel quite the same way as you point out McGuinty brought back online a huge ammount of nuclear capacity. I will try to find the link.

10 years ago
Reply to  Tim

Tim, thanks — yes I saw that piece and thought exactly the same thing. You could argue either way about this. That writer has it exactly right about the game of chicken with Harper that McGuinty lost. But I do not doubt that McGuinty was aiming for a good deal on CANDUs.

I should add that Harper also lost that game of chicken. I wish the two of them had shown more staying power.

McGuinty was misled by the gas lobby (and by mainstream greens) into believing he could keep the lights on with natural gas, which at the time was cheap. That was terribly short-sighted.