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Fossil fuels industry targets B.C. city after move to block natural gas

Canadian Energy Centre pushing campaign to restore possibility of Fortis hookups in new builds
Nanaimo has banned natural gas as the primary heat source in new buildings. (News Bulletin file photo)

By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter CANADA’S NATIONAL OBSERVER

When Nanaimo recently voted to ban FortisBC’s natural gas hookups from new buildings, Alberta’s pro-oil and gas “war room” launched a cross-border political campaign to reverse the move.

The Canadian Energy Centre (CEC) is a publically funded provincial corporation created by former Alberta premier Jason Kenney to protect and promote the fossil fuel industry.

The CEC has launched a hardball lobbying push on its associated Support Canadian Energy website urging oil and gas supporters to flood Nanaimo city council with letters to press the local government to reverse its decision.

The Alberta agency targeted the Vancouver Island city after its council recently decided to accelerate the phaseout of FortisBC gas hookups in new buildings to meet B.C.’s mandated climate targets.

The Support Canadian Energy website doesn’t openly declare its allegiance to the CEC, however, the connection can be found on its privacy page.

The CEC is funded by the Alberta government to the tune of $31.8 million in 2023, up from $7.7 million in 2022, according to the centre’s annual report and financial statements.

As of Thursday afternoon, Alberta’s oil and gas lobby machine website states it has generated 2,377 letters to Nanaimo’s city council.

“The good news is that the vote on Nanaimo city council was very tight — it came down to a single vote,” the CEC website says.

“These letters make a real difference. Councillors need to know what the majority of people think.”

The campaign appears to be the first the CEC and its associate website have launched against a municipal government making a local political decision that might run counter to Big Oil’s interests.

Nanaimo city councillor and former Green Party MP Paul Manly said CEC’s campaign is clearly being waged, if not in name, on behalf of FortisBC.

The fossil fuel campaign exceeds the bounds of simple lobbying and is an attack on the democratic process and the expectation local governments should run business free from provincial interference — especially when it’s coming from another province.

“Where does the Province of Alberta get off launching a campaign like this?” Manly told Canada’s National Observer on Thursday.

“It’s outrageous. It’s inappropriate. I just honestly haven’t seen this done before.

Alberta, FortisBC and the big fossil fuel lobby have stepped beyond climate denial and greenwashing into the realm of bullying and political intimidation, he said.

It means Goliaths like the Alberta government and corporate oil and gas giants are willing to pit their power against smaller municipalities should they make any decisions deemed counter to their interests — no matter how limited the impacts might be, Manly said.

When Alberta’s United Conservative government founded the CEC in 2019, former energy minister Sonya Savage said the agency’s focus would be to improve the reputation of Alberta’s oil and gas sector and challenge those it believes are delivering misinformation.

Run by a three-person board composed of Alberta’s energy, justice and environment ministers, Savage stated it would not target or demonize specific critics.

“This is about telling our story, setting the narrative, disputing the narrative opposing our oil and gas sector,” Savage said. “It’s not about going after individual people.”

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s office and the justice and environment ministries did not respond to Canada’s National Observer’s request for comment on concerns raised by the CEC’s campaign targeting Nanaimo.

Energy Minister Brian Jean’s office refused to comment if the Alberta government condones the CEC’s campaign or if it’s appropriate for the provincial agency to target individual municipalities for local political decisions.

“The CEC advocates for Canadian energy. Please contact the CEC,” an email from the ministry’s office stated.

FortisBC also declined to respond to CNO’s questions about whether the company was aware of or has any reservations about the CEC’s Nanaimo campaign.

FortisBC is not involved with the Canadian Energy Centre campaign, said Diana Sorace, the company’s senior adviser of corporate communications, in an email.

“We have been clear that we oppose policies that would restrict access to low-carbon energy choices for British Columbians,” she wrote.

“To meet provincial climate targets and maintain affordability, British Columbia needs policies that support a diversified pathway, including electricity and renewable and low-carbon energy options such as renewable natural gas and, in the future, hydrogen.”

The CEC’s campaign against Nanaimo, which benefits FortisBC, sends a chilling message to other B.C. municipalities — which gathered last week for a convention in Vancouver where discussions on how to meet provincial emissions targets and deal with climate disasters are key topics, Manly said.

“I have trouble taking FortisBC’s greenwashing about sustainability and renewable natural gas seriously,” Manly said, saying the B.C. corporation lobbied Nanaimo city council heavily in advance of its decision on gas hookups.

“This CEC campaign just reinforces that they need to call in more big guns for a fight.”

Critics dismiss FortisBC’s renewable gas strategy, noting the fuel made out of methane captured from sewage and landfills is still 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year span if it escapes into the atmosphere.

FortisBC says 15 per cent of its gas supply will be renewable by 2030, reducing customer emissions by 30 per cent and preventing the need for new and more expensive hookups.

But close examination of a study by the B.C. government and FortisBC backing the company’s plan shows biomethane will likely only ever make up a fraction of the province’s overall needs.

The CEC’s recent tactics only underscore the need for the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) to ban oil and gas sponsorship from groups like FortisBC or the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers at the annual convention, Manly said.

“I’m not going to let this behaviour intimidate me. I’m not gonna let it sway my decision on this issue,” he stressed.

“I would urge my colleagues at the UBCM to stand firm.

“It’s interesting they’ve singled Nanaimo out, but I guess that just shows you they feel like they got their backs to the wall.”

READ ALSO: Council vote means natural gas won’t be used to heat new homes in Nanaimo