Estevan –Estevan MLA and Minister of Government Relations and Northern Affairs Lori Carr stood before what was likely the most hostile crowd a small-C conservative politician has faced in Estevan in at least a decade, when she spoke to the Estevan Chamber of Commerce coffee talk on Sept. 4.
While there were no raised voices, there was a palpable feeling of consternation and concern among the approximately 60 chamber members in attendance, nearly filling the room.
The principle issue at hand is the future of coal-fired power generation at Estevan. Several chamber members felt that Carr has not done enough, or at least had not been visible in fighting for coal’s future in the Energy City. Several criticisms to that effect have been floating around on social media in recent weeks, as well as a letter-writing campaign by the chamber advocating for coal. This led Carr to address those concerns in her 15-minute opening statement.
She thanked them for their passion fighting for the community. She said there had been a misrepresentation in one aspect, namely that supposedly there had been no response to some letters. “Of all the letters that I had received, a couple had no telephone number and no address, and I didn’t recognize the name, so I didn’t respond to those people. All of the responses came out of the premier’s office,” she said, but noted one had been missed. She accepted responsibility for that and called that person.
“I can assure you I stand with our coal workers and SaskPower workers, and their families. These people are what I believe helps make our community what it is today,” she said, pointing out that the Saskatchewan Party government had spent $1.4 billion on carbon capture and storage (CCS), the largest per capita investment in North America.
“SaskPower’s decision not to retrofit Boundary Dam (Units) 4 and 5 with CCS was due to the age of these facilities, the size of these facilities, and the low cost of natural gas. Estevan has strong potential as a location for future energy generation,” Carr said, pointing to the existing transmission infrastructure and skilled workforce.
The June equivalency agreement on Boundary Dam Units 4 and 5 extended their lives beyond 2019, she noted, and added that both she and the premier wanted to be clear, “Coal will continue to be a valuable part of power generation in this province for the foreseeable future.”
Recent changes in carbon taxation on natural gas power generation have put the planned Moose Jaw power station on hold. “What seemed like a much more economical option has turned into a much more expensive option, so SaskPower is currently re-evaluating all of their options.”
Under the current regulations, Boundary Dam Unit 6 is good until 2027, and Shand until 2029.
Carr said she had attended a coal transition meeting last month, and had been keeping abreast of those ongoing meetings. She explained that it was important for her to attend cabinet meetings and the legislative session. The day before she met the person hired to assist with the coal transition.
“I can see the frustration,” she said.
Taken to task
Josh LeBlanc was the first to stand up, taking ownership of the campaign targeting Carr.
“The accusations were me,” he said. “The point is being missed, Minister Carr. Estevan has, in my opinion, a lack of advocacy.”
He felt those letters should have been responded to by her, not the Premier’s office. “I invite you to come with me and sit across the table with people who are bawling, because their jobs are gone, there’s so much stuff going on in this community right now that people just don’t know what to do. We have a government that is closing units that hasn’t even done an economic impact assessment on the community. What was the plan? Now it’s up to Estevan, the economic development board, and everybody else to do the work the provincial government should have done before those made those decisions. And the response we got from you in March was, ‘If you have an old car, you don’t put more money into it.’
“But you find another car. That’s the response that it should have been,” LeBlanc said.
“What is your plan?” he questioned. “You stand up for Estevan with Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party, when is your plan is going to be to stand up for Estevan? How are you going to get there and when are you going do it?"
“Well, I am standing before you today, and I’ve been standing with this constituency and this community since the day I was elected,” Carr replied. She said she was please she had stood behind Moe, and, “I truly believe he is our best bet, moving forward for this constituency, because I know he truly believes in carbon capture and sequestration.”
She said it was a conscious decision to send one letter back in response to the letters sent to various ministers, and the premier had wanted to pen that letter.
“I’m truly sorry if anyone felt slighted they didn’t get a personal letter from me,” Carr said.
Jackie Wall said, “We are disappointed in Scott Moe.”
Wall said she had asked Moe what the plan to transition coal communities was, and his answer was, “None.”
“Coronach is going to be decimated,” Wall said.
“We shouldn’t have businesses calling, saying they can’t keep going because their taxes have gone up.”
Carr said that the next reassessment will reflect current property values in 2019. She said, “We all know things are going very slow in Estevan. Some stuff is moving, some stuff is not moving, and it’s all based on the sales that have actually happened.”
Government is failing
Brian Senchuk said, “The provincial government has come in and rode a high of the oil boom. That’s still what their premises is. What you’re going to be measured on is what you’re going to do in the situation, right now. Right now, I think the government’s failing.”
He added, “All I hear is excuse after excuse. I was very disappointed in the way the government responded to the decline. They weren’t prepared for the decline, you got yourself into financial problems, and now we’re all paying for it.”
Regarding the lack of movement on the new nursing home, he said, “We hear nothing but excuses, excuses.”
“We’re done listening to excuse after excuse. We need action. And your government is going to be rated on how you react to the downturn in the environment versus what you did back when everything was booming. We can all do well when everything is coming in, and you don’t have to work for it. But now you’re being measured.
“And right now, you’re failing.”
Carr said, “Since I’ve been there, we’ve been in the downturn.”
The first budget was tough, she said. “We cannot rely on resource revenue for our main stream of income, and when resource revenue does decline, we need to be able to not raise taxes and have that additional income there to keep moving forward.”
She said she would take his message back.
Another question regarded small modular nuclear reactors, implying they should be in Estevan.
Carr said, “The place that makes sense is the city of Estevan,” with existing transmission lines and a skilled workforce.
One question took issue with the idea of importing up to 20 per cent of our power from Manitoba Hydro in the future.
Carr replied that she believes we need to generate our own power in Saskatchewan.
Josh Biggs said the early indications on coal transition were made in 2012. “I don’t hear much about Plan B,” he said, with regards to the shut down of Units 4 and 5, which had been imminent if an equivalency agreement hadn’t been reached. “How did we get to that situation, without a Plan B, with hundreds of workers out of a job Jan. 1, 2020?”
Carr said Saskatchewan is working on the federal government’s timeline, and thankfully an equivalency agreement had been reached before that happened. Jobs within SaskPower will be dealt with through attrition.
She acknowledged, “Once these units are closed, they’re gone.”
Wall questioned why governments always seem to put off decisions, saying, “Why does it have to be the last minute with government? Why does it have to be 2023?”
Carr responded that with goalposts being moved by the federal government, as a rule, you make the decision as close to whatever date it is, so the goalposts aren’t moved.
“Change is hard, and uncertainty is not easy,” Carr said.
Another woman said Estevan had lost hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, already. “Everybody is operating under a sense of fear. No business is investing. No people are investing. No homes are selling. Nobody wants to come here. Everybody wants out. So what do we do now, never mind 10, 20, 30 years down the road?”
Carr replied the province has been putting in manufacturing and tax incentives to encourage businesses to move to communities like this. “We just need to figure out how to get them to our community,” she said, adding there are numerous incentives, including a recent one for oil and gas.
One man said, “I think what I want is a bit more fight from you for this area. I’m not saying you’re not doing your part, but I think a little bit of stand up and fight and pushback for this area will make a world of difference, not only for you, but the area.”