Estevan Chamber puts MLA’s feet to the coal-fired flame

Estevan MLA and Minister of Government Relations and Northern Affairs Lori Carr stood before what was likely the most hostile crowd a small-C conservative politician has faced in Estevan in at least a decade, when she spoke to the Estevan Chamber of Commerce coffee talk on Sept. 4.

While there were no raised voices, there was a palpable feeling of consternation and concern among the approximately 60 chamber members in attendance, nearly filling the Days Inn’s Taylorton Room.

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The principle issue at hand is the future of coal-fired power generation at Estevan. Several chamber members felt that Carr has not done enough, or at least had not been visible in fighting for coal’s future in the Energy City. Several criticisms to that effect have been floating around on social media in recent weeks, as well as a letter-writing campaign by the chamber advocating for coal. This led Carr to address those concerns in her 15-minute opening statement.

She thanked them for their passion fighting for the community. She said there had been a misrepresentation in one aspect, namely that supposedly there had been no response to some letters.

“Of all the letters that I had received, a couple had no telephone number and no address, and I didn’t recognize the name, so I didn’t respond to those people. All of the responses came out of the premier’s office,” she said, but noted one had been missed. She accepted responsibility for that and called that person.

“I can assure you I stand with our coal workers and SaskPower workers, and their families. These people are what I believe helps make our community what it is today,” she said, pointing out that the Saskatchewan Party government had spent $1.4 billion on carbon capture and storage (CCS), the largest per capita investment in North America.

“SaskPower’s decision not to retrofit Boundary Dam (Units) 4 and 5 with CCS was due to the age of these facilities, the size of these facilities, and the low cost of natural gas. Estevan has strong potential as a location for future energy generation,” Carr said, pointing to the existing transmission line infrastructure and skilled workforce.

The June equivalency agreement on Boundary Dam Units 4 and 5 extended their lives beyond 2019, she noted, and added that both she and the premier wanted to be clear, “Coal will continue to be a valuable part of power generation in this province for the foreseeable future.”

Recent changes in carbon taxation on natural gas power generation have put the planned Moose Jaw power station on hold. “What seemed like a much more economical option has turned into a much more expensive option, so SaskPower is currently re-evaluating all of their options.”

Under the current regulations, Boundary Dam Unit 6 is good until 2027, and Shand until 2029.

Carr said she had attended a coal transition meeting last month, and had been keeping abreast of those ongoing meetings. She explained that it was important for her to attend cabinet meetings and the legislative session. The day before she met the person hired to assist with the coal transition.

Josh LeBlanc was the first to stand up, taking ownership of the campaign targeting Carr.

“The accusations were me,” he said. “The point is being missed, Minister Carr. Estevan has, in my opinion, a lack of advocacy.”

He felt those letters should have been responded to by her, not the Premier’s office.

“I invite you to come with me and sit across the table with people who are bawling, because their jobs are gone, there’s so much stuff going on in this community right now that people just don’t know what to do. We have a government that is closing units that hasn’t even done an economic impact assessment on the community. What was the plan? Now it’s up to Estevan, the economic development board, and everybody else to do the work the provincial government should have done before those made those decisions. And the response we got from you in March was, ‘If you have an old car, you don’t put more money into it.’

“But you find another car. That’s the response that it should have been,” LeBlanc said.

“What is your plan?” he questioned. “You (say you) stand up for Estevan with Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party; when is your plan is going to be to stand up for Estevan, how are you going to get there and when are you going do it?”

“Well, I am standing before you today, and I’ve been standing with this constituency and this community since the day I was elected,” Carr replied. She said she was please she had stood behind Moe, and, “I truly believe he is our best bet, moving forward for this constituency, because I know he truly believes in carbon capture and sequestration.”

She said it was a conscious decision to send one letter back in response to the letters sent to various ministers, and the premier had wanted to pen that letter.

“I’m truly sorry if anyone felt slighted they didn’t get a personal letter from me,” Carr said.

Chamber executive director Jackie Wall said, “We are disappointed in Scott Moe.”

Wall said she had asked Moe what the plan to transition coal communities was, and his answer was, “None.”

Brian Senchuk said, “The provincial government has come in and rode a high of the oil boom. That’s still what their premise is. What you’re going to be measured on is what you’re going to do in the situation, right now. Right now, I think the government’s failing.”

He added, “All I hear is excuse after excuse. I was very disappointed in the way the government responded to the decline. They weren’t prepared for the decline, you got yourself into financial problems, and now we’re all paying for it.”

Another question regarded small modular nuclear reactors, implying they should be in Estevan.

Carr said, “The place that makes sense is the city of Estevan,” with existing transmission lines and a skilled workforce.

Josh Biggs said the early indications on coal transition were made in 2012. “I don’t hear much about Plan B,” he said, with regards to the shutdown of Units 4 and 5, which had been imminent if an equivalency agreement hadn’t been reached. “How did we get to that situation, without a Plan B, with hundreds of workers out of a job Jan. 1, 2020?”

Carr said Saskatchewan is working on the federal government’s timeline, and thankfully an equivalency agreement had been reached before that happened. Jobs within SaskPower will be dealt with through attrition.

She acknowledged, “Once these units are closed, they’re gone.”

Wall questioned why governments always seem to put off decisions, saying, “Why does it have to be the last minute with government? Why does it have to be 2023?”

Carr responded that with goalposts being moved by the federal government, as a rule, you make the decision as close to whatever date it is, so the goalposts aren’t moved.

“Change is hard, and uncertainty is not easy,” Carr said.

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