Wake up and Smell the Coal Alberta!

03/27/2013 04:53 EDT | Updated 05/27/2013 05:12 EDT

If a new Pembina Institute report released this week is any indication, we Albertans have happily, if unwittingly, kept the wool pulled down over our eyes when it comes to acknowledging the primary fuel that powers our lives. To wit, fully 64 per cent of the electricity generated in Alberta comes from burning the most inefficient and dirty of all fossil fuels: coal.

Only one third of Albertans are aware of this fact. One third!

Traditionally, Alberta gets a bad environmental rap for its oil sands development, and rightfully so. Recently, renowned Canadian scientist David Schindler finally got the federal government to wake up and take notice with his irrefutable findings that high concentrations of airborne and waterborne pollutants, such as mercury and thallium, found near oil sands mines are generated by oil sands production, and not naturally occurring as the oil industry claims.

But, and this will be news to about two thirds of Albertans, pollution from coal-fired power plants is responsible for nearly an equal amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the oil sands (as well as a slew of other toxic air contaminants, like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and particulate matter), 43 megatonnes worth. The cost of climate change impacts from coal-fired power range from $1.1 to 4.5 billion annually.

Newsflash Alberta, we don't have just one dirty little secret, we have two.

The Pembina report highlights the extensive, significant and largely ignored health and environment related costs from burning coal for electricity, in the order of an additional 3.6 to 5.0 cents per kilowatt-hour. This effectively doubles the cost of production, and that's on the low end of the scale, it could be as much as an extra 13.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. Guess who's not paying for that? The coal industry! Guess who is? We are - with our tax dollars and our health.

The pollutants from coal can cause many health problems - toxic injury to the fetal brain caused by mercury, increased respiratory and cardiovascular mortality caused by particulate matter, nervous system and reproductive dysfunction from lead, a possible increased risk of cancer from probable carcinogen hexachlorobenzene, to name just a few. A high price to pay indeed.

True, Alberta has an abundance of cheap coal, in fact the highest reserves in the country, and we burn more of it than all other provinces combined.

But you know what else Alberta has an abundance of? Wind and sun. They're both clean, readily available and, as far as I know, they aren't the murdering kind. In fact solar potential in Alberta is enormous, having the biggest capacity in Canada, greater even than Rio de Janeiro and Rome. We also have an abundance of natural gas, which burns 50% cleaner than coal. All we're missing is a glut of leadership.

A few weeks ago I attended a town hall meeting on the future of energy in Alberta. The panel included a politician, two academics, an environmental lawyer and a TransAlta executive. There was much talk of the future: emerging and economically viable renewable energy technologies, using natural gas as a bridge fuel to renewables and the real potential for a clean tech revolution. It was utterly inspiring.

And then TransAlta took the mike and effectively said it was too hard, too expensive and that they merely provide what the consumer wants: cheap energy. This from a man with more power to drive change than anyone else in the room combined. It broke my spirit.

Given the choice, do you think the consumer really wants to pay for the extra 700 trips a year to the emergency room and 80 hospital admissions caused by airborne pollution from coal? Does the consumer really want an estimated 100 premature annual deaths and 4000 asthma attacks? We are on the hook for an additional 300 million dollars a year in health care costs that are not paid for by the producers of this cheap energy, not to mention the additional 1.1. - 4.5 billion in climate change impacts. They profit, we die.

I'm a consumer and I can tell you emphatically I don't want this and I don't think you do either. We think we don't have a choice, but we do. This will not change without a massive groundswell of protest demanding change. If you're concerned that your electricity bill will increase, well, don't worry about that, you're already paying the price. The true cost of electricity from coal is 10.2-20.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. The cost of solar? 10-15 cents per kilowatt-hour and dropping.

Los Angeles is feeling the heat, recently the American city pledged to phase out coal. Even Ontario, while blessed with abundant hydro and somewhat risky nuclear, will be off coal by the end of 2014, thanks in part to a huge investment in solar and wind. Australia, Denmark, Germany... countries the world over are divesting from dirty fossil fuels and thriving because of it.

The barriers to change in Alberta are not technological, economic or even political. They reside solely within the debilitating confines of the human mind. We are loath to admit this, citing instead endless reasons of why we simply cannot do it - it's too expensive, we don't have the technology, we're a resource-based economy... Baloney.

I know a thing or two about achieving big goals that appear to be out of reach - often told I would never get anywhere in my sport, I went on to compete at three Olympic Games and win four Olympic medals. Henry Ford wisely said, "If you think you can or you can't, you are probably right." Humans are highly capable of achieving seemingly impossible things, just look around at what we've managed so far.

While ignorance may be bliss, it is also reckless. We all breathe the same air and, thanks to industry leaders and politicians who steadfastly refuse to chart a new course, we are slowly killing our future and ourselves.

Now, before you write me off as just a has-been athlete banging a publicity drum - consider instead that I'm an increasingly concerned and informed citizen of Alberta whose lungs are susceptible to the same harmful contaminants as everyone else's. My goal here is to help wake others up to the fact that coal is not fit for human consumption. Just look at the numbers.

We've been in the dark about coal for far too long. The proverbial pot of water is heating up and we frogs are ignoring the heat! The question is, do you want to jump or boil to death?