Growing gas plants: a made-in-Ontario public health failure

Posted on November 17, 2023 in Health Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
November 16, 2023.   By Mili Roy, Contributor

Gas expansion poses unnecessary risks to public health, infrastructure, the economy and affordability. Decisions made now will lock in for generations.

The province’s gas plant expansion plan is a blueprint for a made-in-Ontario public health failure. It will unravel previous climate progress, leading to increased illness, lives lost, and economic fallout further raising our cost of living.

This summer saw the hottest global temperatures in recorded human history, triggering the worst wildfires in Canadian history. Ignoring the escalating fossil fuel-driven climate crisis, our provincial government inexplicably plans to burn even more fossil fuels in the form of natural gas to generate electricity.

“Natural” gas is primarily methane, a highly potent fossil fuel about 85 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas (GHG). Fugitive methane leaks throughout its entire life cycle make the carbon impact of gas comparable to coal, previously considered the dirtiest fuel on the planet. In 2020, gas was responsible for nearly as many health harms and deaths worldwide as coal. Also in 2020, renewable energy became the cheapest energy source on earth for the first time ever.

Ontario’s coal phaseout in 2014 was the single largest GHG reduction ever achieved in North America, and virtually eliminated health harming smog days. Ramping up gas-fired electricity would largely erase Ontario’s hard won gains in getting off coal. Gas-fired electricity produces both carbon pollution causing the climate crisis, and toxic air pollution, such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, also found in coal-fired smog.

The health harms and resulting economic costs of gas-fired electricity are staggering. The climate crisis is widely recognized as the single greatest human health crisis of the 21st century. Climate change causes illness, injury and death related to extreme weather and heat, wildfires, food and housing insecurity, and devastating mental health impacts. Over half of all human pathogenic diseases may be aggravated, while antibiotic resistance is ominously rising. Local risks of Lyme, West Nile and pandemics have already increased. Near future risks include local malaria, yellow fever, Zika and other diseases never before originating in Ontario.

Air pollution prematurely kills at least 6,600 Ontarians annually at a cost of nearly $50 billion to our province every year. Breathing toxic polluted air, further worsened by gas expansion, causes disease throughout our bodies. This ranges from debilitating asthma and mental health impacts, to heart disease, strokes, dementia, diabetes, multiple cancers, risks to pregnant women, including birth defects and stillbirths, and rising antibiotic resistance.

The few studies specific to gas plant exposure suggest emergency room visits, asthma, pregnancy risks, disability and premature deaths may all be increased.

Other jurisdictions worldwide are successfully combining energy conservation, storage, and safe large-scale renewable energy transitions using solar, wind and hydro. Overlooking these low-cost, ready and reliable solutions, the Ontario government deliberately cancelled pre-existing renewable projects, costing taxpayers approximately $231 million.

Federal Clean Energy Regulations may soon shut down polluting gas-fired electricity. Our provincial government is incentivizing gas companies to expand regardless, at public expense. Hundreds of millions of public dollars were promised to keep paying shuttered gas companies even if no longer generating electricity. Currently, $4.8 million tax dollars are on offer to Greater Napanee directly tied to supporting a massive local gas-plant expansion.

Gas expansion poses unacceptable and unnecessary risks to public health, infrastructure, the economy and affordability. Decisions made now will lock in for generations. Green energy investments generate far more employment than gas investments, while capturing future investments from businesses increasingly looking for a clean energy base. Ontario risks being left behind, mired in declining public health and an obsolete economy dependent on volatile spiking fossil fuel prices escalating the cost of living.

With enough immediate public pressure opposing any further gas expansion, including imminent municipal decisions in Halton Hills and Napanee, we could instead redirect public money to urgently implement the affordable reliable clean energy solutions already available at large scale. This is the best path forward to a sustainable, healthy and thriving future that will benefit us all.

Dr. Mili Roy is an assistant professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto.

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