In 2019, Jason LeBlanc was standing in the snow on Parliament Hill, speaking against the carbon tax and in favour of coal-fired power production.

ESTEVAN – Back in 2019, before he became reeve of the Rural Municipality of Estevan No. 5, Jason LeBlanc was standing in deep snow on Parliament Hill, protesting the carbon tax imposed by the Liberal federal government. And now the largest industry in his RM will likely be largely shut down by the end of this decade, due to that government’s policies against coal-fired power.

On Sept. 20, SaskPower announced it was looking at two areas – Elbow and Estevan – as possible sites for nuclear power development. But at that press conference, Pipeline Online asked Crown Investments Corporation (and SaskPower) Minister Don Morgan if it wouldn’t be cheaper and quicker to just implement carbon capture on SaskPower’s coal facilities, or to rebuild with new ones. He said federal regulations wouldn’t allow that. (You can read and watch the entire exchange here).

 

And so with the most definitive answer to date about the apparent lack of a future with additional carbon capture for the coal-fired power plants in Saskatchewan, the clock begins ticking, loudly, on the closure of conventional coal in eight years. Two of Saskatchewan’s three coal-fired power plants, Shand and Boundary Dam, are within the RM of Estevan, as are most of the mines that support them. Between the power plants and the coal mines, they account for about 1,000 jobs, with an average salary of around 100,000 per year. Federal regulations require them to shut down by the end of 2029.

With the prospects of additional carbon capture on coal-fired power now diminished, the Boundary Dam Unit 3 capture plant might end up being the only one of its kind in this province. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Speaking by phone from his combine on Sept. 21, LeBlanc said, “Even as recently as last week, they (SaskPower) still will not sell land that has designated coal, nor will they sell any reclaimed land – anything that could be put back into agriculture. SaskPower is a major, major land holder in our RM, and they will not give up that land, even though it’s farmland that has never been dug up. They designated it as coal.

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He continued, “It appears that the majority of the employees at SaskPower don’t even agree with the direction that it’s going. And what I’m hearing now is they’re not even trying to push what we have. They’re just falling right for exactly what Trudeau wants, and they’re falling in line for it. So I’m very disappointed.”

Indeed, if you look at the RM of Estevan map, a very large chunk of it is SaskPower land designated for the coal mines and power plants.

RM of Estevan No. 5 Map. A sizeable portion of the RM of Estevan is taken up by SaskPower and Prairie Mines & Royalty land. In this map, the yellow area is SaskPower, and the grey is Prairie Mines.

 

LeBlanc said, “It won’t be good news for the RM. But in fairness, the RM gets a blanket tax. We don’t get tax like it’s not a business tax. Everybody thinks we get rich off the coal mine. It doesn’t really work like that.”

He noted that the mines and power have taken 47,000 acres out of production which is not taxed like agricultural land.

“We don’t get rich off it. It’s not like oil revenue,” he said.

He noted that the local community gets strong support from the unions and associated businesses.

A lot of people who live in the RM of Estevan work at the power plants or mines.

“If we have to take the lesser of the worst news, I guess we might get a nuclear reactor here. But as far as jobs go, we had clean coal. We had carbon capture. We had a lot of things going for us.”

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In LeBlanc’s mind, Saskatchewan should have taken the monies raised by oil and gas and coal and then start improving on that, if the goal was to clean up the environment.

He pointed out, “Somebody has it in their head that carbon is killing the world. Well, that’s just not accurate. But they’ve put a big enough sales pitch on that our own Saskatchewan government has drunk the Kool-Aid.”

LeBlanc noted that SaskPower has just signed an agreement with the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) to increase the size of the transmission line interconnect to North Dakota from 150 megawatts to 650 megawatts. SaskPower has said that’s to enable it to buy and sell power with the SPP, especially when it comes to renewable power like wind.

But a substantial portion of that power is generated by coal in the U.S. Coal-fired power that is not subject to a $50/tonne CO2 equivalent federal carbon tax like Saskatchewan’s coal industry is. If the federal Liberal government’s carbon tax policy stays intact, that carbon tax will rise to $170 per tonne in 2030. But as an example at 10:20 p.m. DST on Saturday, Sept. 24, 34.9 per cent of the power generated in the SPP came from coal, and just 24.7 per cent came from wind. And none of that is subject to Canada’s carbon tax.

Southwest Power Pool

 

“The government is knocking on our own people,” he said, speaking of Saskatchewan. “The government is who’s buying into this? And they need to just stand up and say, ‘No.’

“The pendulum always swings. Our ancestors looked for any way to heat the house and to do stuff. And they figured out a way, and it was coal.”

“Other parts of the world are starting to go back. They know it’s not sustainable. It can’t be done. And we have it here. It’s already producing,” he said, noting the writing of Peter D. Clack, of Australia, on the subject.

“Now if they want to switch over some (to renewables) fine, but to just knock us of the park? What are we going to with those jobs? Where were they going to take those people? And then the spin-off from those jobs, that helped our community develop, and our RM?”

He continued, “It’s a huge play, for people to walk around feeling good about themselves, because they said the words ‘green energy.’ If coal was called green, everybody just think differently. It’s a mental game.”

As for the prospect of nuclear power development, there’s a significant chance that if Saskatchewan does start building two small modular reactors in the early 2030s, it’ll happen in the RM of Estevan. Boundary Dam Reservoir and Rafferty Reservoir were two of the three areas, with Alameda Reservoir as the third, being considered in southeast Saskatchewan for possible nuclear development. The other area being considered is Lake Diefenbaker near Elbow.

But a key feature of these nuclear designs is substantially lower staffing requirements once operating, a small fraction of the roughly 1,000 people currently working in mining and power production in the RM of Estevan and neighbouring RM of Coalfields. And that dramatic reduction in jobs does not impress LeBlanc. He’d like to see some of that farmland put back into production, and perhaps irrigation developed for agriculture in the area.

 

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One of the leading advocates for clean coal in Estevan says the community should turn to nuclear, now that SaskPower may not do more carbon capture

Estevan mayor on coal: “The closer we get without any good answers by 2030, the harder it is for everyone in our community. We deserve some answers”

SaskPower narrows nuclear power siting for small modular reactors to Estevan or Elbow areas

Further carbon capture on coal “not an option,” according to CIC Minister Don Morgan

SaskPower signs 20 year agreement with the States to buy or sell up to 650 megawatts

Brian Zinchuk: SaskPower just signed a massive carbon leakage interchange agreement with the States, and Estevan will suffer the consequences