N.B. Power's Belledune generating station will not be allowed to burn coal past 2030, says a spokesperson for federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault.
Ottawa won't sign the so-called "equivalency agreement" that the Higgs government has been hoping to strike to let the plant run on coal for an extra decade, the spokesperson says.
"I can confirm that the Government of Canada is committed to phasing-out coal-fired power by 2030 across the country, including in New Brunswick," Joanna Sivasankaran said in an email to CBC News.
"The Minister will not sign an equivalency agreement that extends past 2030."
The decision effectively gives the province and N.B. Power just eight years to come up with an alternative fuel source or close the plant on New Brunswick's north shore. More than 100 people work there.
Belledune spewed more than 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in 2019, making it the second-largest emitter in the province after the Irving Oil refinery. In 2018 Belledune's emissions were higher than the refinery's.
The Conservation Council of New Brunswick hailed the decision.
"Extreme weather from climate change affects us all," said Louise Comeau, the organization's director of climate change and energy solutions.
"We must phase out the use of fossil fuels which generate heat-trapping gases when burned, to keep people and communities safe."
She called on the province and N.B. Power to help workers at the plant either retire or retrain for new jobs in renewable energy.
N.B. Power said in a statement that it would "continue to explore options and discuss the future of Belledune" with the government.
And New Brunswick Environment and Climate Change Minister Gary Crossman said in a statement the decision was not a surprise.
"Recent comments from the federal government at COP 26 lead us to believe that equivalency and continuing to operate Belledune beyond 2030 would be a challenge. The federal government confirmed its intentions today to phase out coal by 2030."
New Brunswick Environment and Climate Change Minister Gary Crossman did not speak to reporters at the legislature Thursday morning.
On Tuesday, Crossman said Belledune came up briefly during his first virtual meeting with Guilbeault on Nov. 19.
"We did ask about flexibility and we're looking forward to the next meeting coming up, hopefully in the near future," Crossman said. "New Brunswick's a small province and we're doing the best we can to move ahead."
Youngest power plant
The province's youngest power plant, Belledune began operating in 1993, and its design allows it to continue to 2040.
But under the federal government's climate plan, coal-fired electricity generation must be phased out a decade before that, in 2030.
New Brunswick has pushed for an "equivalency agreement" to let the plant reduce its annual output and run until 2040 by spreading the same volume of emissions over a longer period.
N.B. Power says that would allow it to avoid the cost of building a new natural gas plant to make up for lost electricity generation.
In July, then-federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told CBC News he was open to the idea.
"I certainly understand the perspective of the province of New Brunswick."
But at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow this month, Guilbeault, who replaced Wilkinson after September's election, reiterated Ottawa's plan for a full coal phase-out by 2030.
Liberal MLAs representing the Belledune area said they supported Guilbeault's decision but want the province to step in quickly to find another fuel source for the plant.
"We agree with that [decision]," said Daniel Guitard, whose Restigouche-Chaleur riding includes the plant. "That's not the question. We have to replace the coal by another product."
He said if N.B. Power was willing to purchase the Bayside natural gas plant in Saint John in 2019 and refurbish it, the utility should be willing to do the same for Belledune.
"We have a government that doesn't want to invest at all in the north," Guitard said.
While pursuing the equivalency agreement, N.B. Power and the province have also looked at other options for Belledune, including the use of unproven hydrogen power technology from a Florida startup. That idea went nowhere.
Another plan would have seen an iron processing plant built near the power plant, with its gas byproduct becoming a new fuel source.
But the project would have increased overall greenhouse gas emissions in the province and N.B. Power eventually decided that was too costly.
Natural Resources and Energy Development Minister Mike Holland said the cost of a natural gas plant to replace Belledune may be too high given it would also emit greenhouse gases, which the province aims to reduce.
"We're talking nine figures. This is billions of dollars in infrastructure investment for what could be argued is a transitional solution to the problem."
Holland said small modular nuclear reactors could replace the electricity generation lost at Belledune. The province is subsidizing two companies researching the technology, which the minister says may be ready in time for 2030.
He said there's no one "magic bullet" to replace coal and the province is looking at several options, including some pilot projects with solar power.
He also said improving technology allowing battery storage of renewable energy could also play a role.
"We have to have the lights on in the province of New Brunswick," he said.
In its statement, N.B. Power said 80 per cent of its power generation is emissions-free and it hopes to address the remainder "in a manner that is economical for our ratepayers."
Crossman's statement said that securing new sources of energy "will require financial support from the federal government to ensure New Brunswickers have access to clean energy and are not burdened with significantly higher energy rates."