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Planned coal phase-out holds few political risks for Justin Trudeau

In promising an end to what he called U.S. President Barack Obama’s “war on coal,” Donald Trump won the strong support of America’s coal miners, who played an important role in his victories in two key swing states.

But the Liberal government’s decision to phase out coal-fired power generation in Canada by 2030 is unlikely to have significant electoral ramifications for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Trump’s pledge to bring jobs back to America’s beleaguered mining communities was one factor in his defeat of Hillary Clinton two weeks ago. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, two states that swung to the Republicans, Trump did significantly better in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio than Mitt Romney did four years ago.

Trump beat Clinton in this part of “coal country” by margins of 30 to 45 points — about twice Romney’s margin of victory over Obama in these areas.

Coal miners were not the only reason for Clinton’s defeat. But in a close election, she could not afford to alienate any portion of the electorate to such a significant degree.

In Canada, however, the Liberals are unlikely to run the same kind of risk, though the economic impact on the coal industry could be huge. The coal consumed in Canada for generating electricity is equivalent to roughly half of all coal produced here.

Coal country is not Liberal country

According to the Coal Association of Canada, there are currently 24 coal mines that are permitted and/or operating across the country. Ten of them are located in British Columbia, nine in Alberta, three in Saskatchewan and two in Nova Scotia. Cutting their potential market in half is unlikely to hurt the Liberals, as all but two of these mines are located in ridings not currently held by the party.

Canada’s coal country can be found in areas that have traditionally been unfriendly to the Liberals. Five of the mines in B.C. are located in Kootenay-Columbia, a riding held by the New Democrats where the Liberal candidate took just 20 per cent of the vote in 2015. The mines are largely situated near Elkford and Sparwood, two towns where the Conservatives took a significant majority of ballots cast.

Similarly, the four mines in Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies around Tumbler Ridge and Chetwynd are in a Conservative-held riding (the Liberal vote share was 25 per cent), and these two towns were also solidly Conservative.

Yellowhead, a riding in Alberta where six operating mines are located, is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, as is Battle River-Crowfoot, where three mines can be found. Only 14 per cent of voters in Saskatchewan’s Souris-Moose Mountain, home to three mines, voted for the Liberals.

Only the mines in Nova Scotia — in Central Nova and Sydney-Victoria — are in Liberal-held ridings. They were both won by the party with a significant majority in the last election.

Mines listed by the Coal Association as not yet permitted are also largely located in ridings where the Liberals have not traditionally been a factor.

Good politics and good policy?

That is not to say that the Liberal government’s decision is based on seeing voters in these ridings as expendable. In fact, it follows in the footsteps of a similar decision made by Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario Liberal government to phase out coal-fired power generation, completed two years ago.

Gerald Butts, principal secretary to the prime minister, and Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, both previously worked for the Ontario Liberals.

But while there might be little electoral risk for the prime minister, there are nevertheless some political complications the Liberals will need to tackle. Brad Wall, Saskatchewan’s popular premier and a leading conservative voice of opposition in the country, has already criticized the unilateral decision on coal by the federal government.

Still, it is a decision that potentially carries a lot of upside. A survey conducted in September by Nanos Research for Clean Energy Canada, a think-tank that advocates for renewable energy, found that 72 per cent of Canadians supported halting the burning of coal for electricity generation by 2030.

Trump might have been motivated in fighting for the continued role of coal in power generation in the United States because it was electorally advantageous. Trudeau faces no such incentive — quite the opposite, in fact.