Wind turbine blades in a laydown yard near Hanna, Alberta, on June 6. Photo by Douglas Tompson

Wind turbine blades in a laydown yard near Hanna, Alberta, on June 6. Photo by Douglas Tompson

The hazards presented by disruptions to the reliability of the electrical power grid and our capacity to use natural gas to heat buildings, along with wild spikes in energy prices, go well beyond the threats of inconvenience and financial losses. These sorts of energy system failures also contribute to health problems. Freezing in the dark is not just the punch line from a 1970s bumper sticker. High energy prices and service disruptions can kill people — even in rich countries like Canada.

On May 13, The Economist reported that high energy prices were responsible for the deaths of at least 68,000 people from cold indoor temperatures in Europe this past winter. The high cost of natural gas and electricity discouraged people from adequately heating their homes. Living in cold houses and apartments raises the risk of increased cardiac and respiratory problems. The poor and seniors on fixed incomes are particularly vulnerable.

Back in the fall of 2022 Europeans were concerned that the loss of natural gas formerly supplied by Russia would make electrical power generation inordinately challenging. There was concern that big energy users such as the BASF chemical production plants and steel producers in Germany could face supply disruptions. Some pundits predicted that big users like BASF would consider moving most of their production to a country where electricity and natural gas supplies were still reliable. (Editor’s note: BASF is – to Louisiana, USA)

BASF’s Ludwigshafen site has developed into the largest integrated chemical complex in the world. But now much of that capability is moving to Louisiana due to shortage of gas in Germany. BASF

EU member states had been scrambling since the start of the war in Ukraine to find alternative energy sources. Coal and nuclear power plants that were slated for closure for environmental reasons were kept running. The capacity of natural gas delivery systems from outside Russia was boosted to the extent possible and new floating liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals were constructed.

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Supply shortages were reflected in jaw dropping increases in energy costs. Heading into the winter of 2022-23 prices for electricity rose by 69 per cent above their pre-war level. Natural gas prices rose by 145 per cent over the same period. As energy prices soared during the first year of the war people and businesses used less. This helped Europeans fill their storage facilities to over 80 per cent capacity heading into the winter of 2022-2023.

With their reserves approaching full capacity, there was a bit of optimism heading into the winter. In November of 2022, The Economist estimated that as few as 22,000 Europeans were likely to die due to insufficient home heating resulting from high energy prices. That low ball estimate became moot following a cold snap in December which boosted the final death toll due to cold to 68,000. The data showed that a temperature drop of 1o C (1.8o F) over a period of 21 days was associated with a 2.2% increase in total deaths.

It seems reasonable to expect the high cost of electrical energy will also deter some Europeans from purchasing and operating air conditioners, contributing to deaths during heat waves. In Canada, heat waves are especially hazardous for seniors, people with chronic health issues, shut-ins with few social connections and the homeless.

A lack of electrical grid reliability resulting in shutdowns and brownouts combined with price spikes can be expected to have a deadly effect in most developed countries, including Canada. Under these cost and supply conditions, excessively high summer temperatures along with normal winter temperatures across most of Canada will generate health emergencies. It seems reasonable to wonder what the health effects of our increasing carbon tax bill might be.

The weaponization of energy by Vladimir Putin, the EU and NATO caused the surge in gas and electricity prices which resulted in the increase in deaths due to cold in Europe. Here in Canada a threat is posed by the ironically named “just transition.”

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The Scott Moe government has made it clear to the people of Saskatchewan and our federal government that Ottawa’s energy transition targets are impossible to meet within the prescribed time frames and attempting to meet them is likely to be economically ruinous. Given the European experience this past winter we might extend the scope of concern —  federal climate change policy will be hazardous to health.

Brian Zinchuk’s reporting in Pipeline Online has made it clear that there are critical technological barriers to meeting federal targets in the absence of secure and reliable base load electrical generating capability. In the short term both coal and natural gas will be required to keep the system operating and natural gas will serve long-term as the principal transition fuel until such a time as small modular nuclear come on stream. Ottawa doesn’t get it.

Several provincial governments and the Conservative opposition in Ottawa have been challenging the feasibility of federal climate change policy. Ottawa has failed to publish meaningful cost benefit analysis studies, or to explain how to avoid the electrical energy supply shortfalls caused by the mad rush to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Similarly, Ottawa has little to say about the social and human costs of the transition.

The European winter of 2022-23 suggests that one of questions that ought to be addressed is: “How many do Canadians do Trudeau and Guilbeault anticipate the “just transition” will kill?

A similarly neglected topic among the Laurentian elite is the social and psychological cost of an ill-conceived energy transition. Given the relative prevalence of social justice warrior culture among the Central Canadian and Laurentian elites, this is something you’d think would concern them.

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In a recent edition of Pipeline Online, Estevan’s coal transition coordinator enumerated various social and economic costs associated with the closure of coal mines and electrical power plants in Saskatchewan in support of the transition to renewables. These included the many hardships confronting families. First on the list were threatened job losses affecting coal miners, power plant workers and people working in businesses throughout the city. Hundreds of families will feel the loss of the $100s of millions in revenues that the mines and power plants inject into the community. Many of those who become unemployed or under-employed will be faced with family relocation costs. Those will be exacerbated by the fact housing prices are likely to decrease substantially in Estevan, whereas they will often remain higher in the places where they need to move.

We might well reflect here on the impacts of the closure of industrial plants in the US Rust Belt that occurred during the glory days of globalization. There is a mountain of research showing the long-term social and health consequences of the loss of good paying blue collar jobs in the Rust Belt. These include a significant decline in life expectancy for men; higher suicide rates, especially for men; and a surge in drug addiction and deaths due to overdoses.

These sorts of effects should be considered in addition to the potential for deaths due to heat and cold that the “just transition” threatens.

Given that all Canadians have participated in and benefited from the use of fossil fuels, should not the social costs of the elimination of jobs the fossil fuel sector be shared as equitably as possible among all Canadians? Unfortunately, as it stands today the lion’s share of the economic, social and health costs of the transition will be paid by people from the Prairies.

 

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