Peel’s climate goals compromised by provincial love of natural gas
Sandwiched between a densely urban Brampton neighbourhood and the Claireville Conservation Area, tall smokestacks block the horizon; a barrier between the suburban homes and the lush green space on the opposite side.
They belong to the Goreway Power Station, one of the largest natural gas fired electricity plants in Canada. Since 2009, the station has been mostly quiet, only operational during peak times of electricity usage in the province.
But soon that could change.
At a time when many municipalities, including Peel Region, are calling for the phase out of natural gas due to its destructive composition and warming effect on the planet, the Ontario government is planning the opposite.
The Goreway generating station.
(Image from Capital Power)
Premier Doug Ford and his PC government have shown time and again they are no friend of the environment, and have poured millions of dollars into the expansion of natural gas production to power Ontario’s electrical grid, despite the desperate pleas from environmental groups and climate activists.
Not only do Peel residents need to be wary of a continued reliance on the use of natural gas — a fossil fuel masquerading as a “natural” energy solution — but they also should understand the implications of its continued use in the community.
It is anything but green.
Similar to oil, the liquified gas is buried deep beneath the earth’s surface, formed millions of years ago from decaying plant and animal matter placed under extreme heat and pressure. Because it is usually trapped beneath layers of rock, it does not flow easily to the earth’s surface, meaning destructive techniques like fracking are required to extract it. The gas is then transported across the country via pipelines.
Its primary use is heating buildings and water, but can also generate electricity through gas-fired generation stations, like the Goreway facility.
The largest component of natural gas is methane, which can be released any time during the process of mining, transportation and electricity generation. For 20 years after reaching the atmosphere, Methane has the ability to trap 87 times more heat than the same amount of carbon dioxide. This means cutting methane emissions can have a more impactful, immediate effect, than similar reductions in CO2.
In recent years there has been a global effort to address the growing concerns of methane in the atmosphere. The United Nations Environment Programme explains without a reduction of human-cause production of methane, it will likely not be possible to reach greenhouse gas emission goals set under the Paris Agreement.
The UN describes methane reduction as “one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming and contribute significantly to global efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.” This level of temperature increase is widely viewed as the threshold where the world will start to experience more extreme weather events.
By reducing methane emissions in sectors such as agriculture, waste, and energy, the UN has identified the possibility of cutting methane emissions by 45 percent, which would avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by the 2040s “and complement all long-term climate change mitigation efforts,” the report states.
The UN’s report explains the costs and benefits of proper methane mitigation could extend beyond climate targets. As a significant component of ground-level smog, the 45 percent reduction could eliminate 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, and 73 billion lost hours of work due to extreme heat.
Canada has committed to reducing 40 to 45 percent of its methane emissions below 2012 levels by 2025. Methane accounts for 13 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).
Natural gas is better off being called a “fossil gas,” Environmental Defense says, since the chemical emits carbon dioxide and water vapour when used. It’s misleading name often allows people to mistake it for a cleaner form of energy, quietly polluting the air and further heating the planet.
Methane is also produced from landfills, created by the bacteria responsible for decomposition. These emissions can be captured, but make up a very small portion of Ontario’s production.
“Capturing that methane and using it to generate electricity makes some sense, but there's a problem with renewable gas in that it implies that we can continue to use gas,” Keith Brooks, program director of Environmental Defence, tells The Pointer.
According to the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), in 2020 Ontario’s electricity grid created power from mostly low or zero emissions sources, with 60 percent of electricity coming from nuclear plants, 25 percent hydro, 8 percent wind and one percent solar. A fraction of the grid, 7 percent, is powered by gas or oil, but the grid has upwards of 28 percent capacity to be able to be powered by such sources.
“We need to have it [electricity grid] as clean as possible, it should be zero carbon, that's the target,” Brooks said.
The province is home to three nuclear generating stations, located in Kincardine, Clarington and Pickering. Each station operates a number of units where the splitting of uranium occurs. With all of the aging units built between the 1970s and early 1990s, the potential safety issues increase the longer these facilities remain in use.
Pickering’s station is currently the only fully functioning plant with eight units working 24/7. The nuclear plants in Clarington and Kincardine have lost reactors to maintenance and large-scale refurbishments. The lone fully functioning plant is nearing the end of its useful life, initially scheduled for 2025 (plans are already emerging to extend that date), leaving a potentially larger gap in Ontario’s power grid.
The province underwent a massive phase out of coal from 2001 to 2014, a feat not to be overlooked. The shutting down of the coal-fired stations cleaned up air quality and lowered the emissions of Ontario’s electricity grid. Of the power the province uses now, natural gas/oil powered plants are the only source of energy producing CO2.
What groups like Environmental Defence are lobbying for is a zero carbon alternative to nuclear power like hydroelectricity, solar, or wind. Projects such as these have to be planned years in advance with government funding secured and designs in place.
When Ford was elected in 2018, he cancelled 758 renewable energy programs or initiatives, doing significant harm to the province’s future green electricity capabilities. As Ontario’s nuclear plants undergo massive renovations, the province intends to increase natural gas usage for electricity to bridge the gap.
In Spring 2021, a number of municipalities called on the provincial government to start phasing out natural gas, including Brampton, Mississauga, Kingston, Toronto, Kitchener, Waterloo, Hamilton, Barrie and others. Instead, the Ontario government poured millions of dollars into expanding natural gas lines and plants across the province, primarily to remote northern communities.
In June it announced Phase 2 of the Natural Gas Expansion Program and allocated more than $234 million for about 8,750 more connections to gas lines.
“We have to do our part to reduce climate change, and we can't be relying more on fossil gas going forward,” Brooks said. “It's not the way that we should be going.”
Capital Power, the company which runs Brampton’s Goreway plant, noted on its website the station is primarily used during peak demand periods, but it has the capacity to provide electricity to the power grid 24/7 if needed.
Capital Power did not respond to a request for comment.
In 2016, Intrinsik, a science and regulatory consultant, studied the gas generating stations in the province for Ontario Power Generation Inc. The goal was to provide an evaluation of GHG emissions from different types of energy sources.
They noted Goreway emitted 862,040 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere that year. This is equivalent to extracting approximately 12.9 million barrels of oil.
Gas-fired plants can contribute to air pollution and also create adverse effects on the health of the community. According to a 2021 report from Ontario’s Auditor General, natural gas leaks are the most common hazardous spill in the province.
“Natural gas is transported to homes and businesses by pipelines, and was the source of 9,616 or 24% of reported spills,” between 2016 and 2020 to the Ministry of the Environment. Because the gas contains mostly methane, the spillage cannot be cleaned up and is the cause of approximately eight percent of Ontario’s methane emissions.
Besides being extremely flammable and highly explosive, exposure to high levels of poor air quality due to natural gas can leave people with symptoms of hypoxia, when a person's blood oxygen levels decrease, causing headaches and loss of consciousness.
“The Environment Ministry does not disclose sufficient information to the public about the quantity of hazardous spills and the harm they cause, to inform them of the impacts on their local community and across Ontario,” the Auditor General report said. “Information is not disclosed on the specific locations where spills occur, who caused the spills, or the specific impacts the spills have had or may have on human health and/or the environment. Further, the information that is disclosed is not reported in a timely manner.”
For reference, in 2020 there were two natural gas spills reported in the province, both instances were described as having minor damage on human health.
According to the report, Peel saw more than 1,000 air spills between 2016 and 2020. These spills do not necessarily mean just from natural gas since other chemicals can pollute the air as well. The Auditor General report references smoke, refrigerant gas, methane gas, propane and ammonia as potential other pollutants.
The province’s most heavily populated areas saw the largest amount of air spills between 2016 and 2020.
(Ontario Auditor General Report)
The increase in production from natural gas plants will only heighten the possibility of air pollution and create further impacts for the Region as a whole. According to a report from Peel, if Ontario increases natural gas production and consumption the Region continues, it will not be able to achieve its GHG emissions reduction targets.
In a 2020 progress report Peel staff write, “the Region’s GHG emissions associated with electricity use increased 59 percent from 2017 to 2018, primarily due to increased natural gas fueled generation in Ontario.”
Even with some accomplishments, like the addition of 84 hybrid police vehicles, the Bovaird stormwater retrofit and the installation of 13 public electric vehicle chargers, Peel is not on track to reduce 45 percent of 2010 emissions by 2030.
According to a recent study by the Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) Authority, Peel is warming twice as fast as other areas of the world.
By monitoring the watersheds in the Region, CVC was able to determine there has been a temperature increase of 1.8 degrees since 1940, double the rate of warming globally. This means, urban areas like the Region will likely experience the worst of the heat waves and extreme weather events ahead of other jurisdictions.
The constant heating of the planet doesn’t just mean uncomfortable humid summer days for humans, it hurts valuable ecosystems like forests and waterways.
So where does that leave us?
“By and large, it's about collective action,” Brooks said, “Led by government and government policy and procurement rather than by individuals. I don't think people should be shouldering this responsibility, and trying to take it upon themselves to clean the grid.”
“The truth is, that this is in the power of the government.”
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