Baird steps back into Ontario nuclear minefield: Harper assembles his election lineup

Now that John Baird is the new Environment minister he gets to revisit the Ontario electricity file, over which he recently presided as Ernie Eves’s Energy Minister. This will be interesting.

As the most recent Ontario Conservative to hold that job, Baird inherited the Pickering unit 4 near-fiasco from his predecessor Jim Wilson. The unit 4 project signaled Ontario’s recommitment to nuclear energy, and while intensely uncomfortable for all concerned, provided invaluable lessons for the unit 1 rehab, approved by the McGuinty Liberals in 2004 and completed on time and within budget in late 2005.

The return of units 1 and 4 has played a pivotal role in reducing Ontario’s electricity-sector greenhouse gas (GHG) and smog emissions by 12 million tonnes a year since 2000. As I have pointed out, this is a major achievement: it is by far the biggest emission reduction since Canada signed the Kyoto accord in 1997. Only a very few alert reporters have noticed.

Now the McGuinty government is looking to add to Ontario’s nuclear fleet. This will cost billions. Might it be time for someone at the provincial or federal level to tie the fiscal balance and environmental issues together? McGuinty has played the fiscal balance card endlessly, and has environmental vulnerabilities of his own (i.e., his promise to shut Ontario’s coal plants). Could nuclear power, by virtue of its high capital cost and proven track record of offsetting emissions on a grand scale, enter into the fiscal balance debate? Would Baird, as federal Environment Minister, support Ontario’s nuclear expansion? He is intimately familiar with Ontario electricity, and knows how politically risky it is to step through the nuclear minefield.

As a strong partisan Conservative, Baird would want to play the issue so that it hurts McGuinty and helps Harper, both of whom will lead their parties into elections in 2007. But, as I have pointed out in my October 4 post, it may be difficult to avoid helping McGuinty.

This is going to be a crazy year.

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