In a pandemic year, pretty much everything is being done differently. That was the case with the Estevan constituency all-candidates forum, hosted by the Estevan Chamber of Commerce Tuesday night.
And doing things differently, due to the pandemic, was one of the issues that permeated the forum.
Four of the five candidates vying for the riding took part. In the order they were drawn, the candidates were incumbent Lori Carr of the Saskatchewan Party, Phillip Zajac of the new Buffalo Party, Linda Sopp of the Progressive Conservatives and Seth Lendrum of the New Democratic Party.
The moderator was chamber executive director Jackie Wall, who noted that despite their best efforts, they were unable to get a response from Green Party candidate Scott Meyers.
The event took place at the Access Communications studio in Estevan. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was not held in a hall, with a live audience, as is usually the case. Instead it was broadcast live and livestreamed online, so there was no applause, and no questions from the floor.
After opening statements there were three prepared questions, followed by a series of questions from viewers emailed into the chamber, some during the forum. There was no formal debate between participants. Each candidate had an opportunity to answer the question within an allotted time, or they could opt to pass.
Both Sopp and Lendrum passed several times, but Zajac and Carr answered all questions posed to them.
The questions were related to the economy, municipal/provincial relations, federal equalization, jobs in a digital economy, parenting, Saskatchewan’s role in confederation, energy efficiency, supply chain risks due to COVID-19, and a new long-term care facility for Estevan.
The issue of power generation was raised several times and in several different ways by the candidates, but one question put it straight to them: What is your stance on the future of coal-fired power generation?
Zajac led off, saying, “Coal-fired power generation should be around for generations.”
He noted that there are no $100,000 per year jobs listed on SaskJobs lately, even with retraining. “We have good paying jobs at the mine. We have good paying jobs at (Sask)Power. These are people that we care about in our communities and there's nobody that's watching this today that doesn't know someone that works there. I don't want to see those people have to move, because there's no good paying jobs here. You can't you can't support a family of five on $20 an hour.”
He emphasized throughout his presentation that all of SaskPower’s coal-fired generating fleet, including the Poplar River Power Station at Coronach, should be retrofitted with carbon capture and storage, which would then reduce Saskatchewan’s emissions.
Sopp said, “It’s a shame they’re thinking of having coal shut down completely by 2030. When that comes, and they want us to run on natural gas, and the price of natural gas, it’s going up. Imagine what the gas bills will be like when we have no coal to keep our houses warm, how cold our winters are when it’s minus 30, minus 40, minus 50, and their furnaces are humming? Coal is the only thing that will keep you warm.”
Lendrum said “Coal power, right now, is a good thing. And I do believe we need to wean ourselves off of it. Geothermal is a very big part of Estevan. There is a huge opportunity for us to build upon that. I believe we can retrain people so they will be able to work in the geothermal area, which will bring more jobs into Estevan.”
Carr said, “I would like to see coal-fired generation here for years to come, unlike the NDP, who would like to see it stay in the ground and lose those good-paying jobs for this community. So, first and foremost, your Saskatchewan Party government has secured that equivalency agreement to ensure that we are able to continue to burn coal unabated until end-of-life, or 2030. This is why we are still able to burn coal today or some of the federal government's would force us to close some of those units down by now.
“So this does not help us with the federally imposed rules that are being put on this province. As we move forward, my first choice is power production in Estevan is coal-fire production with carbon capture and sequestration. And as our government moves forward, I will continue to look for accountability, when decisions are being made as to what type of power production, we will move forward with in this community. But coal is my first choice.”
Another question regarding Estevan transitioning from coal had Carr and Lendrum both talking about the possibility of small modular nuclear reactors for Estevan, but Zajac dismissed the idea. Carr reiterated that coal, with carbon capture and sequestration, was her first option. She also spoke of new technology using coal in non-traditional ways such as “synfuel.”
Zajac said, “I know that everybody watching here right now knows there is no plan for transition. There are no jobs that are currently happening today, and you need to tell everybody that there is no plan. There's a certain amount of money that's been given out, a bunch of surveys have been done and research has been done, but nothing to help anybody get a job, similar to what we have today.”
He added that wind doesn’t work due to start up and decommissioning costs, as well as other factors, and solar panels have a finite lifespan.
Sopp said of coal, “It’s here. It’s natural. They were talking about nuclear here, but the grid is not up to date, so that’s impossible. As for geothermal energy, it’s very expensive to start. The cost efficiency will be very high, and nobody will ever make money in taxes. It’s ridiculous.”
Asked about a new nursing home for the community, Carr said she has been on the committee working to advance a new nursing home.
“We've had several meetings with the Minister of Health and visited officials to explain different options to try and advance this new nursing home. When talking with the minister, we're told that there are several nursing homes in the province that are in more need of replacement than ours, and that that is how they prioritize which nursing homes are chosen to be advanced. Having said that, I have not accepted no as an answer and will continue to bring forward ideas that are presented,” Carr said.
Zajac said, “My job is to get the nursing home built.” He noted the current facility uses a shower curtain to segment off washrooms, and “it’s embarrassing.”
Sopp said a nursing home, “should not be on the back burner.” She said seniors are being separated, with husband and wife in different communities.
“That is not going to happen if we get in,” Sopp said.
Lendrum said, “One of our big things is senior care, and I will definitely push it through our seniors, our homes, all over the province. They're understaffed, and they're overcrowded. We need new homes, and we need staff for them.”
The provincial election is Oct. 26.