Province, Parkland County at Odds Over Coal Information

Minister of Economic Development & Trade Deron Bilous, left, with Mayor Rod Shaigec, right. (Government of Alberta)

Insert released in November "Parkland Communicator" problematic for provincial government.

A special insert released by Parkland County in their November edition of the Parkland Communicator titled "The Future of Coal in Parkland County" is being labelled as partially inaccurate and incomplete by the provincial government.

The special insert, seen in its entirety here, presents figures attained through an independent, third party study in the spring of 2017, a timeline of events and the forecast economic impact on the county when it comes to the phase out of coal fired electricity.  However, absent from the insert are two prominent government initiatives announced this fall: the Coal Workforce Transition Fund (November 10th) and the Coal Community Transition Fund which was announced September 11th in Parkland County.

"You know, within the newsletter, it's Mayor (Rod) Shaigec himself who says the County and province need to be working closely together.  I would argue that we are working closely together," Minister of Trade and Economic Development Deron Bilous tells One News.  "Their timeline does not reflect the fact that back in January of 2016 I pulled together all mayors and reeves of the affected coal communities for an initial meeting and since then I've had numerous subsequent meetings with Parkland County."

"This bulletin, you know, there's several inaccuracies in it.  Frankly, it's a little puzzling to see this newsletter go out as it's fairly one-sided," continues Bilous. "The province has shown that we're at the table with them and want to work with them to identify solutions and this newsletter does not reflect that."

Aside from meeting several more times with Parkland County, Minister Bilous also references the announcement of the Coal Community Transition Fund in September was made "side by side" with Mayor Shaigec and the coal tour in August, where he visited different coal affected communities to speak directly with other municipal leaders, including Wabamun.

Specifically, Bilous says one of the most egregious inaccuracies he identifies is the actual lifespan of coal plants outlined in the special insert.

"There are parts of it that talk about how their study that they did assumed that the plants and mines would remain in place and open for decades to come," explains Bilous.  "Well, the reality is that the federal regulations and the provincial regulations will see coal plants retired by 2030 unless they convert to natural gas.  So, that part in the bulletin is factually incorrect."

The study alluded to by Bilous was completed by a third party on behalf on the county over the spring of 2017.  When reached for comment, Mayor Shaigec says he and his council stand by the insert and he has a different recollection of the sequence of events.

"We've reached out numerous times and we've told the province that we need to sit down and develop a framework-together- and a strategy to mitigate the impacts of the phaseout of coal on Parkland County," Mayor Shaigec tells One News.  "It's going to have a significant impact on our budgets.  They either don't recognize that or are discounting the impacts."

As for the study, Mayor Shaigec is certainly firm on the findings and is issuing a challenge to the province to prove otherwise.

"This is an independent socioeconomic impact assessment that was done by a third party consulting firm.  These aren't numbers our staff put together.  We certainly stand by that study.  If the minister or the province believes they're inaccurate, I'd ask the province to release the financial impact assessment that they undertook prior to implementing this policy," adds Mayor Shaigec.  "What are the figures, what are the impacts that their reports show would be on the communities like Parkland County."

Mayor Shaigec did recognize some of the work done by the province with One News, despite it not being in the insert, but remains unconvinced enough work has been done to supplement communities who stand to lose tax dollars.

"The recently announced and much needed allocation of $40 million dollars to assist affected workers through this transitional period is a great- I think those are commendable on behalf of the province," remarks Mayor Shaigec on the Coal Workforce Transition Fund, but adds "but what they've failed to do is address and make restitution for the financial impacts on municipalities like Parkland County."

It's safe to say Minister Bilous disagrees with this statement under the context of the Coal Community Transition Fund announced in Parkland County back in September.

"I appreciate the fact that the mayor is concerned about potentially lost municipal revenue.  What I can tell you is that we are working with the companies.  They've indicated they're interested in converting [to natural gas].  There's still conversations with some of the companies to potentially build brand new gas-fired electricity facilities which would add new municipal revenue and create new jobs," counters Minister Bilous.

"I can tell you that many other coal-fired communities are very much taking advantage of the [Coal Community Transition Fund] and looking at ways they can diversify their economy and move forward.  Some communities are looking at getting into the renewables space.  Others are exploring other opportunities identifying what their strengths and assets are," adds Minister Bilous.

Minister Bilous also outlines the mere ability for coal fired plants to work into a transition phase towards natural gas electricity generation is a win for coal communities as the option wasn't even available less than a decade ago.

"It was our government that worked with the federal government to change the regulations to allow the coal-fired plants to convert to natural gas.  It was the 20212 Harper government that brought in regulations that would not allow plants to convert; that would cede their end of life after their 50 years which, again, is closing 12 of the 16 coal fired facilities.  They had no supports for workers or communities.  They had no plan and they didn't work with the communities," notes Minister Bilous, before further elaborating.

"Conversely, our government has not only visited all the communities numerous times- we've been working collaboratively with them.  We are continuing to work with the federal government to push them to step up to the plate and match our dollars to be able to support the communities." 

Despite the statements of Minister Bilous, Mayor Shaigec assesses the government needs to do more as he feels the TransAlta decision to take Sundance 1 offline and mothball Sundance 2 on January 1st, 2018.

"TransAlta has made a business decision and I think largely in part because of the uncertainty in the market," says Mayor Shaigec, who cites the decision will cost Parkland County $700,000 of tax revenue in the 2018 budget.

Overall, Minister Bilous seems exasperated the county made the decision to provide what he deems to be impartial and incorrect information while Mayor Shaigec remains incredibly disappointed over what he feels is a lack of progress.

"From day one, we've been very interested and have come to the table wanting to work collaboratively.  I can tell you it's disappointing that they've decided to put out this bulletin which doesn't show the full picture of the work we have been doing with them, the commitment that we've made, the announcements that we've made to support our communities, municipalities and workers," says Minister Bilous.  

As for Mayor Shaigec, he says "why should our residents be treated in a different fashion than every other Albertan?  These residents are families, these are children and seniors, who like every other person has the right to be treated equally and fairly.  To me, and our council, there's an apparent disinterest or unwillingness for the province to meet with us and start working on this framework."

Since the interviews, Minister Bilous and Mayor Shaigec have made contact.

-TS

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