Alberta and its new premier: a prediction on climate change policy

Rachel Notley, Alberta’s soon-to-be premier, promised action on climate change. She has about one option, given her province’s general anti-nukery. That option is natural gas. Specifically, replacing the coal-fired generators that make most of Alberta’s electric power, with gas-fired ones. This would help to reduce the extremely high CIPK of Alberta grid electricity—currently around 900 grams per kilowatt-hour, according to Environment Canada—to maybe 700 or 600 grams.

If the price of gas goes up, and oil prices don’t go back up, then Alberta’s oil sector will be in even direr trouble that it is in now. And what could drive gas prices up? An increase in demand. Such as what would occur if Alberta’s new premier decides to address climate change by making provincial utilities switch from coal to gas.

The oil sands, Alberta’s bread and butter. Though reviled by environmentalists, operations like bitumen mining will continue in Alberta. This points up the stark issue for Alberta, Canada, and the world:  how to move around on the surface of our planet without polluting our own air. The only way is by using nuclear energy.

The oil sands, Alberta’s bread and butter. Though reviled by environmentalists, operations like bitumen mining will continue in Alberta. This points up the stark issue for Alberta, Canada, and the world: how to move around on the surface of our planet without polluting our own air. The only way is by using nuclear energy.

So, a reduction of 900 grams to 700-800 grams. Perhaps a 200-gram reduction. Whoop dee doo. That is a reduction, true, but—if it happens—that will be the extent of Alberta’s climate change policy. Premier-elect Notley will not, repeat not, be able to do much about the oil sands. The already-high lifecycle CIPK of energy from Alberta-bitumen-derived gasoline will remain exactly what it is today.

Notley will likely do what just about every other climate-conscious politician does: she will support the “greening” of Alberta’s grid with the useless-but-unfortunately-popular wind turbines and solar panels. (Note that when I say “popular,” I mean popular among people, overwhelmingly urban, who do not have to live near enormous wind turbines or enormous solar arrays that produce pitifully unreliable power compared with the size of their physical footprints.)

Putting Alberta further onto the wind/solar bandwagon will only jack up the price of Alberta grid electricity, as these sources are so inefficient that their owners require higher-than-normal per-kWh wholesale rates just to stay in business.

If this prediction proves correct, the new premier will of course not be doing anything new. Rather, she will be continuing a century-long tradition in Alberta of building wind turbines (see the photo below). Except in this case she will tout it as climate change progress. Unfortunately, however many turbines are erected will make not a dent in the grid’s urgent need for reliable generation, which in Alberta will be, as it is today, in the form of fossil-fired plants. The only reduction in Alberta’s grid CIPK will come by way of the switch from coal to gas, and that reduction will be marginal at best.

Raising a windmill in Alberta, c. 1910. One hundred and five years later, Alberta still has by far the dirtiest electricity in Canada: roughly 900 grams of CO2 come with every kilowatt-hour of Alberta electricity, versus less than 49 grams for Ontario. This is because wind cannot play more than a marginal role in electricity production. If that were not true, Alberta would not be making most of its electricity with coal.

Raising a windmill in Alberta, c. 1910. One hundred and five years later, Alberta still has by far the dirtiest electricity in Canada: roughly 900 grams of CO2 come with every kilowatt-hour of Alberta electricity, versus less than 49 grams for Ontario. This is because wind cannot play more than a marginal role in electricity production. If that were not true, Alberta would not be making most of its electricity with coal.

These plants as mentioned will burn natural gas, a fossil fuel, instead of coal, another fossil fuel. Attempting to solve climate change by switching to a slightly less carbon heavy fossil fuel is, as I have said before, like kicking alcoholism by switching from wine to beer. A policeman who pulls you over and takes your license away because you blow over 0.08 (the legal limit in most jurisdictions) does not care that you drank beer instead of wine. Similarly, Mother Nature doesn’t care whether the CO2 in her (and our) atmosphere comes from a coal-fired plant or a gas-fired one. Mother Nature sees the CO2 molecule, and makes it behave according to her laws, which in this case mean making that molecule absorb and emit infrared radiation.

The new premier of Alberta will, if she does what I predict which is to address climate change by forcing electric utilities to switch to natural gas-fired generation, create a new price problem for the province’s oil industry. Alberta oil producers’ current price problem has to do with the extremely low world price of petroleum. They have been spared, during this crisis, from the other price nightmare: a rise in the price of natural gas.

Natural gas is the main energy input, and the second-most-important raw material, in bitumen processing. Gas is burned to provide the heat that melts the viscous tar out of the sand; and it is used to make the hydrogen that turns the separated tar into a liquid that can flow (hopefully down a pipeline). In hydrogen manufacturing, gas is both energy source and feedstock. Gas is therefore a hugely important input in bitumen upgrading. It has been cheap for several years now, and prior to the drop in oil prices cheap gas was a major driver of profitability in the oil sands.

If the price of gas goes up, and oil prices don’t go back up, then Alberta’s oil sector will be in even direr trouble that it is in now.

And what could drive gas prices up? An increase in demand. Such as what would occur if Alberta’s new premier decides to address climate change by making provincial utilities switch from coal to gas.

There is no hope for progress in Alberta climate policy, or its economy, without nuclear energy.

Could Alberta’s new NDP premier be the one to realize that and act accordingly?

As they say, only Nixon could go to China.

5 comments for “Alberta and its new premier: a prediction on climate change policy

  1. seth
    May 10, 2015 at 11:50

    Terrestrial Energy is on track for a 2021 in service date of its IMSR SAGD operation. Could easily be expanded to replace all of Alberta’s coal/gas plants preferably with a new public power operator replacing inefficient private utilities.

    She could actively promote this program and propose these units as coal/gas plant replacements with far less knee jerk reaction from Big Oil’s anti nuke “Green” team.

    It would certainly blunt the arguments of anti tar advocates in the US, making Alberta Tar in future the cleanest oil on the planet,- GHG and air pollution wise.

    Since all reality based analysis tells us that current natural gas pricing is a ponzi scam with contributions (capital) used to sustain rapid fracked well depletion any coal to gas switch is likely to reflect badly on her as the next election approaches into a probable rapid rise in gas prices.

    Opposition to her government from Big Oil’s Fascist media will be incredible on all fronts. Given the utter failure of wind/solar in Ontario, she could deflect her “Green” supporters saying she waiting to see how Ontario’s “green” energy experiment works out before launching her own, blunting the Fascist’s potent green energy cost argument.

    She should also avoid any upgrader investments, as oil is a sunset industry, with current capacity likely sufficient to carry world needs over the lifetime of any such investments.

  2. Andrew Jaremko
    May 12, 2015 at 12:04

    Steve – thanks for this post, and most especially for the final rhetorical question. She could be the one to act – if pro-nuclear Albertans, like me, get off our butts and get to work. And we should also follow leaders like Joe Willis, with his Decarbonize Alberta (2014) Science Fair project. Joe’s presentation to the Haskayne School of Business was captured by Calgary’s ardent pro-nuclear documentarian Gordon McDowell, and I’ve put Joe’s segment into a video of its own:

    I was one of Joe’s resources for his project and aimed him at Canadian Energy Issues, where he picked up the electricity quadrants diagram from your analysis of energy, emissions, and costs.

    Terrestrial Energy IMO has exactly the right strategy: the focus has to be on business applications. In Alberta, we’ve got the opportunity to convince the various fossil hydrocarbon industries that burning their feedstock during the manufacture of fuel and petrochemicals isn’t a good idea, and that they can have more product to sell if they employ alternative sources of industrial scale high temperature heat. Dr. Stephen Boyd was very eloquent at the Small Modular Reactor conference (video by the ubiquitous Gordon McDowell):

    It’s time to start developing customers for energy dense, versatile, reliable, high temperature heat sources in all the industries that use heat. A change in government along with a severe economic shock here in Alberta might be the perfect time to get some serious attention.

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