Two years ago, the Ontario Liberal party ousted the ruling Conservatives by promising a better, healthier future for the province. One of the chief planks in their campaign platform was a pledge to close Ontario's coal-fired power plants by the year 2007.
By all accounts, closing Ontario's coal plants is a political success.
Taking on King Coal and a powerful workers union makes the Liberals look tough, committed to protecting human health and the environment despite pressures from the business sector.
Attacking coal's dirty, polluting character fosters the image of a government dedicated to protecting our communities. The harshest criticism opposition parties can muster is that the government is failing to close the plants fast enough, in light of studies showing that coal plant pollution kills as many as 668 Ontarians and dumps some 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of mercury into our environment every year.
But it is all optics. By any grassroots account, the Ontario government's approach to closing our coal plants has been an environmental failure.
Ontario's communities still suffer from coal pollution, because the phase-out is limited to five provincially-run power plants. A whopping 80% of mercury emissions (the number one reason for contaminated fish in Ontario) are spewing from facilities other than power plants: namely, garbage and sewage incinerators, steel factories, and cement kilns. The province has shown little courage in taking on these other industrial polluters.
Phasing out coal-fired power plants in Ontario does not mean an end to coal-fired power, either. The government has no comprehensive energy plan, no program that will find alternative sources of clean power or promote meaningful conservation. As a result, the province is simply buying energy from coal-fired power plants in Michigan, Ohio, and New York.
These American plants are already responsible for more than half of the air pollution in Ontario. As demand for the dirty power from down south increases, so will bad air up north.
The government's reactionary approach to energy planning also fostered feelings of fear and desperation. In this climate, coal's nasty reputation and the lack of existing energy sources are used to shore up weak arguments for other forms of dirty power.
Instead of asking, â€œHow best can we power this province?â€? news editors and industry analysts limit themselves to, â€œWhich do we like better, coal or nukes?â€? Because the Ontario government did such a good job describing the horrors of coal, the response is predictable.
"Ontario needs more nuclear power plants," wrote the Globe and Mail. Editors there asked only whether the new plants would be public or privately owned. The Toronto Star was even more blunt: "Ontario is running short on time. We shouldn't waste overmuch of it debating the inevitable, controversial though nuclear power is. Rather, we should be discussing where new plants should be located."
In a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees, the government now proposes rebuilding nuclear reactors on the Great Lakes to replace the void left by coal. In doing so, our political leaders ignore overwhelming evidence that nuclear plants also taint fish, destroy fish and wildlife habitat, contaminate our food supplies, and threaten the drinking water supply of nearly 10-million people.
Once a major priority, protecting the environment and human health have fallen by the wayside.
Special interests thrive in this kind of chaos. Since 2003, nearly 300 new energy-related registrations have appeared on the Ontario lobbyist registry. The vast majority of these registrations describe lobbyists paid to push a particular energy source (like nuclear power) behind closed doors. Not one is hired to promote the need for public involvement, increased transparency, or thorough environmental assessments.
These lobbyists lapped up the government's narrow attack on coal and used it to support their own agendas. Nuclear power is called â€œthe clean air energyâ€? now â€“ as if mercury, nitrous oxide, and sulphur dioxide from coal plants were the only threats to our environment. Likewise, the obvious impacts of coal plants (like smog) are exploited to gloss over less visible impacts of nuclear pollution (like cancer).
Meanwhile, communities are left scrambling to protect themselves. Residents of Toronto breathe a little easier because the Lakeview coal plant closed down, but people on Lake Huron continue to suffer because the nuclear power plant there is being fixed up to last another generation. In the province's eastern region, citizens brace for an influx of tire incinerators, presumably grateful because it is â€œanything but coal.â€?
What started out as a noble effort â€“ protecting citizens from air pollution â€“ has turned into a free for all for energy lobbyists and industry heavyweights. Instead of rallying together, Ontarians are divided in the fight for limited access to environmental protection.
We desperately need to redefine the debate over energy production in Ontario, and across North America. We need energy programs that stop describing what we are against (coal, nuclear, hydro) and start prescribing what we are for (clean air, pure water, healthy communities).
Only then will we have what we've all been waiting for: real success.