Chronicles

A question of economics

        The news that the New Brunswick Public Utilities Board has approved New Brunswick Power's application to convert its Colson Cove generating station from oil to orimulsion is most unwelcome, but hardly surprising. It came down, as it always does, to a question of economics.

        After years of carping at NB Power over its burning of orimulsion in the Dalhousie plant, and years of their trying to get it right, I am reasonably convinced that orimulsion can be burned relatively safely. It has cost NB Power hundreds of thousands of dollars to install equipment which insures that the fuel is burned properly. Emissions of microparticles of heavy metal and of sulphur dioxide are well controlled. Sulphur trioxide, the stuff that persists in colouring the smoke plume a rather startling brown/purple under certain atmospheric conditions, continues to be a problem, and I am convinced that it will continue to be so, despite the best efforts to eliminate it. However, I am also willing to concede that much of the remaining problem is of a cosmetic, rather than an environmental, concern. It will be interesting to see how the good citizens of Saint John and surrounding areas react to their first experience of a fifty or seventy-five kilometre long plume of purple haze emanating from the smoke stack, once the conversion is complete.

        The big issue with orimulsion, though, is carbon dioxide emission. Carbon dioxide is colourless and odourless. It is a natural by-product of such things as breathing. Unfortunately it is also produced by burning fossil fuels - and it is incombustible itself. CO2 is one of the major "greenhouse" gasses and Colson Cove currently emits 20% of the total for the entire province. The conversion from oil and gas to orimulsion burning will do absolutely nothing to reduce the production of CO2, and therein lies its major problem.

        New Brunswick, along with Quebec, the other Atlantic Provinces, and the New England States, has recently signed an accord to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses to the levels of 1990 by 2010. How this is going to be achieved under any circumstances is anyone's guess at this point; foregoing a major opportunity to reduce emissions in the largest single producer of the gas complicates the issue enormously.

        What is most distressing in this decision is the realisation that, although more and more people admit to the need to "do something" to control such emissions, the commitment continues to be lipservice. When it comes down to a decision, economics win every time. At some point this has to change. At some point, governments and their agencies have got to realise that the economic bottom line is not the only concern. More accurately they have to realise that decisions based on economics today are only delaying far greater and more costly expenditures in the future.

        I have only to look out my window at the Restigouche River, still open a full month after it should have frozen over, to realise that the greenhouse effect is not some vague, futuristic threat; it is here, and will only become more severe in the immediate future. The provincial government has a hard choice ahead of it: either it endorses the Utility Board decision to continue on with business as usual and damn the future, or it decides to do the right thing and reject this proposal.

        This article appeared in the Campbellton Tribune, in Mike's "Grains of Sand" column. It is reproduced with Mike's permission.

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