Energy peace

Viewpoint: Daniel Pearce, Friday August 31, 2007

Debates about energy use are usually dry affairs involving highly scientific or technical knowledge and language. Theyre supposed to make your eyes gloss over, not sit up and take notice.

That all changed yesterday after Greenpeace protesters boarded a coal freighter on Lake Erie that was headed for the Nanticoke generating station and chained themselves to the boat. Police went out on the lake, arrested the trio and brought them ashore. Media rented helicopters to get aerial shots. Angry words were painted across the ship.

This is high-profile stuff, if nothing else. Some might call it childish and say that it is vandalism and criminal activity. Greenpeace contends its trying to prevent vandalism of another sort - that done to the environment.

Certainly the group had timing on its side. Its actions coincided with the release of the Ontario Power Authoritys plan for upgrading and expanding the provinces electrical grid over the next 20 years.

It calls for Queens Park to spend $60 billion during that time. To no ones surprise, the focus is on nuclear at the expense of coal. When the McGuinty government took power, it promised to eliminate all of Ontarios coal-fired plants by 2007, then kept kicking up that date. Now it sits at 2015.

It was ridiculous for the Liberals to announce they would simply pull the plug on coal, which supplies close to one fifth of the provinces electricity, overnight at a time of expanding demand. The policy initially seemed to be motivated by politics: it sounded good at election time regardless of the do-ability of the idea. But now that it has a detailed plan in place, Queens Park appears to be serious this time. Its starting to sound like coals end is near. Which raises all kinds of questions for the future of Nanticoke. Lost in all the drama on the lake yesterday is what will happen to the generating station in our backyard. Youve heard the story before. It pays big money in municipal taxes and employs 600 people in well-paying jobs. We cant afford to lose it.

Earlier this year the possibility of building a nuclear facility at Nanticoke was raised and a series of public meetings was held. A nuke plant would not go ahead there, we were assured, until local communities had chewed the idea over first and given their consent. Has our input into this decision now gone out the window with this weeks recommendation (by the body that advises the government on energy policy) that coal should be wiped out in eight years? Perhaps what the report is telling us is that theres no bluff here: that Nanticoke will be gone no matter what, and if we want something there to help our economy it must be something other than coal.

Coal has become the bad boy of the environment, the worst thing possible to burn if you want to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. But nuclear also has its downside, namely how to dispose of the radioactive waste that stays dangerous for thousands of years afterwards.

In 1974, Greenpeace protesters scaled the smokestack at Nanticoke. In 2007, they chained themselves to a coal freighter. Come 2015, they may be back again, this time to protest a different type of power generation.

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