This morning, running through energy news stories at a popular aggregator site (Zite Magazine) this dramatic headline greeted the eye: Coal power likely culprit behind thousands of deaths in Alberta: Study. Thousands! That's a lot. Click on it, one goes straight to the media source:
- Globe and Mail – Josh Wingrove: Use of coal power costs $300-million a year in health expenses: report ; The meat of the report, reports Wingrove: "Coal pollution also leads to 100 premature deaths, 700 emergency room visits and 80 hospital admissions each years, as well as trigggering asthma attacks. It also emits other contaminants, such as mercury, said the study."
The derived hed in the version that first caught the tracker's attention, with its thousands of deaths, may be misleading but is compatible with 100 per year or so. They've been processing and burning coal for a long time out in that sprawling province and won't stop any time soon so the health toll adds up. One could probably get similar findings from analysis of the tar sands oil industry. And, being a right-thinking person (which in this case, yes, politically left-inclined) on climate change and all that, any report seems to me a good thing if it urges the full bill be paid by the primary agents for external costs of coal. One welcomes things that help put their costs more on par with those of more sustainable, planet-friendly sources. Next stop, greenhouse internalization as well and a stiff carbon tax!
But as news reporting this first rendition in one of the Canada's leading newspapers falls short. One must also recognize that there are more news cycles to come with plenty of opportunity to fatten things up.
The full report is linked in Grist below as is the press release. Both offer many targets for some pointed questions and caveats. First up for explicit recognition, as potentially biased, is the report's source. After all, a declaration on the same topic from the coal industry would probably say something different such as that coal makes money and poverty kills, too. Motivated reasoning runs high when one is examing the source of one's own livelihood. But ditto for this report, published by some hardly disinterested outfits, which the Globe & Mail's report lists with little further comment. You know they hated coal going in: the Pembina Institute, the Asthma Society of Canada, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), and the Lung Association. The Pembina Institute is down there in Grist, too, but the short version is that it is devoted to a transition to clean energy.
Second, the report cites no epidemiological data, for there are few (and spotting a 100-death annual death difference due to a cause as diffuse as bad air would be exceedingly difficult). Rather, it does a thorough job totting up the particulate and other emissions from coal, their generally recognized impacts, and modelling the results. There are scary maps showing that Edmonton with its dense population is down wind from the prevailing westerlies blowing over the region's coal-burning power plants. It's all plausible. But, like not taking Greenpeace's word for it on ice loss or whale deaths (but accepting it as a solid tip), reporters should ask around after reading a report like this – however well-put-together it looks to a layman.
Canada has no shortage of professors at its medical schools and of government scientists (if Ottawa's rulings are not muzzling them) who could assess the quality and believability of the study's conclusions. Economists too. Is the report in line with existing literature, is it a major contribution or a hack job, is the technical expertise of the authors up to snuff? And the coal bosses ought to have an honest few lines reflecting what they and their staffs think of the report.
One expects to read a good deal more. The report just came out yesterday. A press conference is today. If there was no time to round up this sort of reaction in time for today's edition, fair enough. It was important that the report and its authors see their basic conclusions spread via general news media promptly. One does what one can. The reporter did, for this first take, not just rely on the press release and other handout material. He wrapped in context including mention of other reports that have reached similar sorts of conclusions. But there should be plenty of time today or tomorrow to offer a broader range of perspective to people following this news.
- Calgary Herald: – Marty Klinkenberg: Health, environmental groups call for end of coal-fired power plants ; Similarly derived from statements by the report's authors.
- CBC News / Edmonton: Coal plants cost Alberta $300M in health costs: report ;
- Canadian Press via Ottawa Citizen – Bob Weber: Study finds health iimpacts of coal power subsidy to industry ;
Grist for the Mill: Report: A Costly Diagnosis / Subsidizing coal power with Albertans' health ; Pembina Institute home page, report Press Release ;