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Estevan MLA faces lots of questions from chamber members during Coffee Talk appearance

Future of coal power, child-care spaces among the issues addressed.
Estevan MLA Lori Carr addressed the Estevan Chamber of Commerce during an appearance through the Coffee Talk series.

ESTEVAN - The future of coal-fired power, the shortage of available child-care spaces and health-care employee shortages were among the issues tackled by Estevan MLA Lori Carr during a Feb. 1 speech at the Estevan Chamber of Commerce’s coffee talk.

A few dozen people gathered at the Days Inn for Carr’s address. After initial opening remarks, the question and answer session began. 

She told the crowd that federally-imposed parameters around emissions have made it more difficult to run coal-fired plants in 2030.

“We can sit around and wait for change in the federal government leadership, or pray and hope they change the regulations they have in place, but there are no guarantees that any of that will happen. That why we need to plan for the future with the regulations that are in place for this current time,” she said.

This is why she said the provincial government is investigating the possibility of two modular nuclear reactors. The Estevan area is one of the finalists to be the site.

“We know this makes sense because the Estevan area has the infrastructure necessary to power the province, as we have for decades and will … for decades to come,” said Carr.

The site selection is expected to be made in 2024, but a final decision whether to proceed won’t happen until 2029.

The work force can be retooled to be trained for different types of power production, she said.

SaskPower is also looking if the Shand Power Station can be converted from coal to natural gas.

“We have over 1,200 megawatts of transmission line in the Estevan area,” said Carr. “Those 1,200 megawatts will be used in the future. It’s just a matter of seeing what that exactly looks like.”

Mayor Roy Ludwig asked if the province could get the city, the federal government and SaskPower together so the city can make more decisions about the future of the community.

“We’ll maybe need your help, the province’s help, so we can have these meetings sooner than later, and discuss the road map for what that looks like,” said Ludwig.

Carr replied SaskPower is working on what that road map might look like with the regulations, which she said are always changing.

“There’s no guarantee that even if we get a change in administration at the federal level, that parameters will change to the point where we can just continue doing what we’re doing,” she said.

Due to uncertainty with the future of coal-fired production, Carr admitted SaskPower has had a difficult time keeping employees in the Estevan area. The Crown corporation has been told that people need hope there will be jobs in the Estevan area in the future. She hopes a plan will be released in the next few months.

“With those employees, we need to find ways to keep them here so that they don’t move on to other opportunities,” said Carr.

Chamber executive director Jackie Wall said there are employees at Westmoreland Mining LLC who have been getting very good offers because the trades are in such high demand. Turnover is becoming an issue.

Ludwig said the city wants to see the mines continue to operate with coal-fired power until the SMRs come online, which would be 2034 at the earliest.

The provincial government has been trying to explain to the province how its power grid works, Carr said, because it doesn’t have access to hydroelectricity like Manitoba. This province’s water isn’t as suitable as Manitoba’s, either.

Ludwig suggested investigating other uses for lignite coal, such as graphite, which is a big part of battery production.

“Coal is such an unbelievable resource. We don’t necessarily have to burn it. If we could look at some of these options to keep the mine running, that would be good,” he said.  

Carr pointed out that Coronach is working with a private company to find other ways to use coal. If they’re successful, then some might be applicable here. But she also thinks Westmoreland should step forward on the innovation and investment front for coal uses other than energy production.

The provincial government is encouraging trade offices to build here and bring employees to the Estevan to ensure jobs stay in Saskatchewan. As for value-added materials, they would have to happen in partnership with private industry.

“We have tons of incentives in place for companies that are going to be doing private builds,” said Carr.

Recruitment and retention of employees is also a challenge. Carr noted her daughter recently had a baby, and was told on Fridays that if she went into labour, she had to go to Regina.

Carr noted it was due to a shortage of nurses rather than doctors. The government released a Health and Human Resource Plan last year to address the issue.

“We’re going to recruit, we’re going to try to train people, we’re going to incentivize people to actually go to the regions that aren’t necessarily the regions they would go to,” said Carr.

Wall noted there are nurses in Estevan on maternity leave who want to go to work, but can’t due to a lack of day care spaces. Wall encountered the lack of child-care spaces 15 years ago when her children were young.

“I hear about day care every now and then in my office. Most recently I just heard about it again,” said Carr. “The daycares that are in place are not run by the government. We actually give licences. It’s all non-profit organizations or private industries that actually get these day cares up and running.”

The provincial and federal governments have agreed to a $10 per day agreement for day cares, but Carr said every day care isn’t licensed to qualify. An online course to get the licence should help with the needs.

Cory Casemore, who has five kids, including three in day care, noted turnover is a big issue in what is a high-stress job.

“The support that they receive is not making it enough incentive for those people that are there to stay, because the cost of living is going up, and the amount that they’re being paid – they can go work elsewhere and make the same amount,” said Casemore.

One day care board member noted many day cares are in a position in which they can’t take any babies. She noted they asked the city to see if they could get help to start a school-aged day care.

Carr said a new day care would be the answer, but the challenge will be finding staff.

People in attendance voiced a desire to focus more on spaces for those ages six to 10.   

Carr also cited some employment numbers, with 576,800 people working in the province last year, and the 67.2 per cent labour force participation rate. But she recognizes the staffing issues businesses are facing.

“I’m sure everyone in the room can say ‘We’ve got jobs for you. Just apply and we can find a spot for you,’” said Carr. 

The chamber hosts the Coffee Talk the first Wednesday of each month.