John Spears of the Toronto Star is a great reporter. I hope that assessment shines through the mild complaining I do in my commentary on his articles. Spears’s beat is Ontario electricity, a technically and economically complex subject with which he is obviously proficient. However, it is also a Big-“P” political issue. Spears’s paper is editorially favourable to the incumbent elected government in Ontario, and one of that government’s hallmark policies is support for wind power. That has made the government very popular with self-styled “greens,” including and especially those who work for the natural gas industry.
That presents problems when it comes to reporting on the nitty-gritty of government policy. It requires writing in such a way as to present facts, but not in a way that is unfavourable to your employer’s (the newspaper’s) entrenched editorial positions.
For example, government support for wind is easy to successfully attack. It’s easy to see that nobody in his right mind, and especially nobody who works hard just to make ends meet, would ever put up their own wind turbine. They would quickly realize it is a total waste of money and effort. All that fooling around, and you STILL have to make sure you have a backup generator! If the person urging you to put up a wind turbine worked for a company that makes gasoline-powered generators, you’d quickly figure out what he’s up to. He wants your money.
That is exactly the case with the the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, one of the so-called grassroots organizations that concerns itself with Ontario electricity. The OCAA is a gas-industry funded lobby group whose sole reason-to-be is to replace nuclear power in Ontario with gas-fired power, which dumps half a kilogram of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere for every kilowatt-hour it generates. Nuclear puts zero GHGs into the air for the billions of kilowatt-hours it produces each year.
Yesterday, August 1 2012, the OCAA’s “clean” gas plants dumped more than 52,000 metric tons of climate-destabilizing carbon dioxide into our air. Go to www.ieso.ca, click on “Inside the market,” then Inside the market, Public reports, GenOutputCapability/ and scroll to the report entitled “PUB_GenOutputCapability_20120801_v25.xml.” You’ll see in the Gas category that the gas plants generated 96,080 kWh of electricity. Multiplied by 550 grams of CO2 per kWh and you get 52,844 tons of CO2. In one day. That’s what the OCAA calls “clean.”
That kind of rhetorical ploy reminds me of similar ones throughout the history of propaganda. How do you get around inconvenient truths that make you look bad? Pretend they don’t exist. Are you a natural gas salesman trying to make people forget that you are pushing a carbon-heavy fuel? Then call it “clean.” Problem solved. Gas is clean. Blue is green.
John Spears is one of the very few reporters who cover Ontario electricity who points out that the OCAA is paid by the gas industry. But he does so in a subtle way. In his most recent article, Spears dissects another ”study” by the OCAA. The OCAA’s ”studies” are similar to those of Amory Lovins, another oil industry lobbyist who hates nuclear because it outperforms his beloved fossil fuels on every level. Like Lovins’s, the OCAA’s ”studies” are full of made-up “facts” that—surprise, surprise—“prove” that cheap nuclear power is actually more pricey than expensive, carbon-heavy, dangerous natural gas.
Here is the lead up to Spears’s dissection:
Gas-fired plants operate under contracts that pay their owners well above market rates, and in fact receive about one-third of payments funded by the global adjustment fee on consumer hydro bills.
But Jack Gibbons, who heads the clean air alliance, argues it makes sense to use them in preference to nuclear plants because they are clean, and their incremental fuel and operating costs are low.
And here, a bit further on in the article, is where he quits playing with the mouse and just eats it:
The alliance receives 21 per cent of its funding from corporations, some of whom are gas utilities.
Scott Luft, at his site Cold Air, gives a much more detailed critique of the OCAA study. If you need further proof of the OCAA’s innumeracy, scroll down to the part where Scott quotes Rick Jennings, who is an assistant deputy minister in the Ontario ministry of energy. At the Darlington joint review in April 2011, Jennings blandly shot down the OCAA’s made-up claims of “cheap” combined heat and power:
The cost of the [CHP-generated electricity] procured ranged from about 11.5 cents up to about 24 cents a kilowatt hour, so these are quite expensive projects.
The OCAA claims that Ontario could simply buy cheap hydropower from Quebec in order to replace the output of the nuclear plants. This is pure fantasy, and they know it. In any case, Scott dismisses that recommendation:
The price of importing [hydroelectric power] from Quebec should be the price of production in New England [Quebec’s biggest market].
One of the OCAA’s gas utility clients is Enbridge, a pipeline company that has been in the news lately for major spills in the U.S. and Canada. A few weeks ago, a Vancouver Province cartoonist posted the following spoof of an Enbridge ad on YouTube:
The Province, in which Enbridge is a major advertiser, pulled the spoof from its website. This raised freedom-of-speech debates, which were covered by some media, including CBC.
But not the Toronto Star. Canada’s biggest newspaper was strangely quiet on an issue that you would figure from its editorializing on numerous other subjects it would cover with great intensity. I searched for, but could not find, any Star coverage of the Province’s handling of the Enbridge spoof. The Province is a Postmedia publication. Postmedia’s editorial positions tend to be the diametric opposite of the Star’s. Very strange that the Star would not pounce on this story.
So more kudos to John Spears for pointing up, in print, the most salient fact about the OCAA: which is that it is an astro-turf phony grassroots organization advocating on behalf of the natural gas industry.