Sept/Oct 2010

Painting coal in a brighter shade

Allen Wright is working to improve the industry’s image

By Robbie Pillo

 Allen Wright

Working tirelessly to promote the Canadian coal industry, this year’s winner of CIM’s Coal Award, Allen Wright, is no stranger to the challenges encountered when trying to change the face of this sector. Since joining the Coal Association of Canada (CAC) as executive director in 2001 and later becoming its president and CEO, Wright has dedicated a lot of his time to revitalizing the industry and giving it the voice it deserves.

A political science graduate from Brock University, Wright has a tremendous amount of experience in public and government relations. He directed the government relations efforts for Dome Petroleum and Amoco Canada (now BP Canada), and was a member of the external affairs team with Imperial Oil. He began his public affairs career in 1975 serving as a senior member on the staff of two Federal Cabinet Ministers in Ottawa. CIM Magazine talked to this visionary on a range of issues affecting the industry.

CIM: What are your thoughts on the recent anti-oil sands billboard campaign in the United States?

Wright: Much of the information is twisted and inaccurate. It is hard for the industry to compete with such groups. Nobody believes us and the BP scandal certainly did not help. People are skeptical and cynical about the industry — they will believe environmental NGOs before they believe us.

CIM: What can the industry do to improve its public image in the wake of such a scandal?

Wright: The coal industry is spending a great amount of time and effort on reducing its carbon footprint at mine sites. The technologies and methods used by the coal industry to do so is not something that will grab the attention of your average “Joe Public.” What does are numbers — not just the jobs we create but the community benefits that arise from the royalties we pay to the local government, such as new daycare spots and teachers’ positions — things that people can relate to.

Another way is educating the public by creating industry literacy programs in local schools and engaging the teachers in a way that they can provide a balanced perspective on resource development. Right now we [CAC] offer coal kit modules that were specifically developed for middle school students. Our big focus for 2011 is to digitize them, make them more interactive and touch screen-friendly — a program that appeals to younger audiences.

We [CAC] are in the process of evaluating our next step — realizing that we can’t be all things to all people. It is really important for us to find opportunities where we can work with other organizations, whether it’s with the oil and gas industry or CIM or MAC — somehow we have to pool our resources and talk about some fundamental messages we have to deliver.

CIM: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about coal?

Wright: There are several, but the biggest is that coal is only used for power generation. If you conducted a poll, I am certain only a fraction of those polled will know its other main uses: steel and cement making. Many people who are advocating for the environment do not realize that a myriad of the products they use are made from steel — the bikes they ride, the cars they drive or the buses and airplanes they take.

Another misconception is how the industry is raping and pillaging most of our country’s land. A recent report urges the BC government to protect 50 per cent of its land, yet mining in BC counts for 0.04 per cent of the land base. We have not done a good enough job in conveying to the public our commitment to stewardship, especially as it relates to our reclamation effort. Safety is another issue. People believe the industry is very unsafe. Our commitment to safety is priority number one. You are actually more likely to get hurt in a shopping mall than a mine — that’s how safe coal mining really is.

Coal is still the most inexpensive energy option. While many people, especially in government, are advocating for more renewable energy, these sources tend to be significantly more expensive and cannot provide baseload power. While we support the development of alternate energy sources, coal should and will continue to be an important part of the energy mix. Coal will be the bridge to the future if we want to keep the lights on.

CIM: Earlier this year, Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced that Canada must phase out older coal-fired plants as it moves to make natural gas-fired plants the new clean power standard. How will this affect the industry?

Wright: The industry must upgrade their plants to comply with government standards by the time they reach the end of their economic lives in and around 2025. In order to meet the new standards, significant technological changes to older plants will be required. Power companies have to decide whether it makes more sense to retrofit old plants with new technologies or to invest in new plants. Since new standards cannot be met by using credits or offsets, the reality is that, as plants get older, you reach a point where economically it does not make sense. Building new plants with the latest technology may be the more attractive option.

CIM: Are there any new developments that do use coal more effectively?

Wright: Besides building more efficient plants, such as TransAlta’s Genesee 3 and the soon to be commissioned Keephills 3 here in Alberta, much of the effort in Canada is being focused on carbon capture and sequestration or storage. Governments, industry and academia are spending a great deal of time and money to make this technology commercial.

CIM: In your opinion, how does natural gas compare to coal?

Wright: The big challenge with natural gas is its price volatility. The price of coal tends to be much more predictable. The big question for coal is what happens to the price when you add in the cost of new technologies. Those are issues that are still being worked on.

CIM: What’s next for CAC?

Wright: The Association’s goal is to provide a window to coal in Canada, a portal if you will. A key part of that will be a redesign of our website so that it can be a useful tool for our members, providing key information, data and statistics to those representing the industry in business environments or in the community — making sure they have the right information. We want to give it a clean and simple look — providing the public with clear messages that they can relate to, which, hopefully, will start shedding a better light on the industry.

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