As a physician, I’m not very fond of coal. An article in Scientific American published in August 2011 pointed out that although all sources of energy for the generation of electricity have their risks, coal is the riskiest in developed nations. Reviewing 1800 accidents over thirty years, coal’s risks were mostly associated with the mining stage. For oil and gas, distribution was riskiest, and for nuclear energy it’s the power stations that run the greatest risk.
However, the authors of the Scientific American article point out that the greatest loss of life from fossil fuels is due to the pollution itself. In the US, the average loss of life from the particulate matter associated with the burning of fossil fuels is substantial:
—hospital admissions for pneumonia: 4,040
—hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease: 9,720
—premature deaths: 30,100
—cases of acute bronchitis: 59,000
—asthma attacks: 603,000
—lost workdays: 5,130,000
The combustion of fossil fuels generates a number of toxic by-products including lead and mercury (neurologic poisons), dioxin (affects the endocrine system), chromium and arsenic (carcinogens), and sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide (which cause acid rain). In 2008, the Canadian Medical Association estimated that air pollution in Canada caused 21,000 deaths, over 92,000 emergency department visits, and more than 620,000 trips to the doctor. The costs for both loss of life and health care were estimated at $8 billion.
Perhaps you can see why as a physician, I’m not fond of coal. It plays such a large part in this problem. Notice I haven’t even brought up the fact that the combustion of coal generates more greenhouse gases (GHG) than any other source of energy.
The Pembina Institute has just released a report on the status of coal-burning as a source of electricity in Canada. Entitled “The High Costs of Cheap Power: Pollution from coal-fired electricity in Canada,” it reviews where things are at in our country and where they could be.
As of 2010, coal plants were seven of the top ten GHG emitters in Canada (two of the others were associated with the Alberta tar sands). The very largest emitter in the country is the Sundance coal electricity plant in Alberta.
Different provinces use different amounts of coal. In fact, four of them—British Columbia, Quebec, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Prince Edward Island—don’t use any coal at all. And Ontario is planning to phase it out completely by 2014. In contrast, Alberta which is the worst offender gets more than 70 percent of its electricity from coal. Of the six provinces that use coal, three of them—Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia—generate more electricity from coal than any other source of energy.
Granted, Ontario gets much of its electricity from nuclear and hydro sources with coal playing a much smaller part, so it’s easier to phase out than it would be in Alberta. But if one province can make the necessary changes to remove the dirtiest fossil fuel, surely others can at least minimize it.
Every move away from fossil fuels is beneficial to our environment and our own health. Hopefully coal will continue to diminish as a source of energy for Canadians. As the authors of the Pembina report conclude, “Reducing conventional coal plants from Canada’s electricity supply will lessen the high costs of coal pollution to human and environmental health, and capitalize on one of Canada’s most cost-effective ways to reduce GHGs.”