Put coal on the front burner

Ontario's anti-coal policy makes little economic or environmental sense.

Just as they head into the electricity-sucking summer months, Ontarians are learning they will be paying more to keep their air conditioners going. Starting May 1, the fee for electricity will rise to 5.8¢ per kilowatt hour (up from 5¢), and to 6.7¢ per kilowatt hour if consumption goes above certain monthly thresholds. Distribution rates are also changing (with some going up and some going down, depending on location). It all means Ontarians will pay between 3% and 15% more for electricity.

We think it would be better for everybody if government got out of the business of electricity. But since privatization is a politically dead issue in Ontario, we will at least give Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals points for moving prices in the right direction. As much as consumers grumble, the rate hikes are a good thing. Higher prices better reflect the cost of power, and provide an incentive for Ontarians to consume less. They should also help bring online other ways of generating electricity that couldn't be supported by cheaper rates.

So now that it has partially addressed the consumption side of the equation, the Ontario government should direct its attention to supply. To meet that challenge, the government must abandon a 2003 election promise by Premier McGuinty to phase out Ontario's coal-fired generating plants and to take coal off the power menu.

The Liberals promised to ditch coal because it is a “dirty” source of electricity. Instead, they have committed resources to supporting alternative forms of energy (wind, solar, etc.) and generating stations fuelled by natural gas; they have not ruled out new nuclear power stations. But as far as Ontario is concerned, coal generators — even those using so-called cleaner coal technologies — are not an option.

This is shortsighted. Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, points out that new coal-burning technologies can have emissions “comparable [to], and in some cases better” than natural-gas-fired generators. What's more, while North America has a 300-year supply of coal, it's estimated there are less than 10 years of known gas reserves on the continent, and gas prices are expected to keep rising as supplies dwindle and demand increases. Meanwhile, Ontario could face severe electricity shortages this summer, and could be forced to rely on imported power — in some cases, even buying it from stations fuelled by dirty coal.

The province must deliver electricity as cleanly and as cost-effectively as possible. It should give coal another look.

Phishing. Skimming. Identity theft. Fraud, and in particular electronic fraud, has evolved to the point where it commands a lexicon of new words and novel offences. But how much do Canadians really know about the prevalence of these crimes du jour? If we relied on national police statistics, we might think fraud is on the decline. Since 1991, reported frauds have fallen by 38%. But this is comforting only until you realize that police figures are heavily weighted toward old-school cheque fraud. Most fraud artists have moved on to more modern and harder-to-measure crimes.

In truth, we know very little about the extent of electronic fraud. International surveys estimate that as little as 2.4% of all frauds are reported to police. Fraud victims are far more likely to report their misfortunes to retailers, banks or financial institutions for redress. In 2004, for instance, only 29,500 credit and debit card frauds were reported to police in Canada. In the same year, MasterCard and Visa reported 177,000 cases of fraudulent use of their credit cards alone.

If we accept that electronic fraud is indeed a growing crime — and anecdotal evidence abounds that it is — then clearly Canada's legal system needs to be better informed. That the most relevant statistics are in private sector hands is a problem that the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics hopes to solve, with a proposal to collate fraud data from commercial sources. It seems a necessary and timely move.

But while retail organizations, insurance firms and credit card companies are willing to get involved, not everyone is onboard. “[T]he banking industry in general, including the Canadian Bankers' Association (CBA), declined participation,” reports the centre's feasibility study, which was released on April 11. Curiously, the CBA argues on its website that fighting electronic fraud is one of its major public policy objectives.

When asked, a CBA spokesperson claimed they didn't participate “because we do not have any specific information to report” — an argument the feasibility study disputes, and which strains credulity. Perhaps banks are reluctant to publicize the extent of electronic fraud for the same reason cruise ship lines shed little light on crimes at sea: it might be bad for business. Regardless, if Canadian banks are going to argue that politicians should do more to fight fraud, they must do their bit, as well. If they really have no data, they need to start collecting it. If they have it, they need to start sharing it.