Time to stop playing nice with fossil fuel companies

Seth Klein

May 17th 2021

Video here.

In the face of the climate emergency, this is the time of our Phoney War. Most of us know the battle for our lives must soon get underway, and most of our leaders — in government and industry — are now talking tough on climate. But in deeds, they aren’t there yet.

Among the many barriers we face to a genuine climate emergency plan is a fossil fuel industry that has insidiously used its economic and political power to stall meaningful action. If this story has a villain, it is the oil and gas corporations and their leaders (not their workers) who outright lied for decades about the truth of climate change, and more recently have done everything in their power to systematically delay and divert the need for climate action. The fossil fuel industry, in pursuit of its financial self-interest and preservation, has become expert at preying on our fears, misgivings and desires.

Allow me to add into evidence some recent examples of the “natural” gas industry making mischief with needed climate action. To appreciate why what I’m about to share is so enraging, a little context: Many do not understand that the natural gas we burn in our homes and buildings (for heat, hot water and stoves) is a major source of greenhouse gases (GHGs), accounting for roughly 12 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions. Consequently, fuel-switching our buildings to electricity — mainly by means of high-efficiency electric heat pumps and induction electric stoves — represents a vital and urgent piece of decarbonizing our society and driving down GHG emissions. But natural gas utilities are employing a bag of tricks to slow the move to electrify our buildings.

Exhibit A: Political campaigns to block electrification

Two weeks ago, E&E News exposed leaked documents that revealed many of North America’s major gas companies have been scheming to block electrification. Specifically, Eversource Energy, New England’s largest utility, in an industry presentation in March divulged it is the co-lead convener of an alliance with the straight-shooting name, “Consortium to Combat Electrification.” According to one of the leaked slides (shown here), the consortium, established in August 2020 and housed within the Washington, D.C.-based “Energy Solutions Centre,” includes 15 utilities, including two Canadian members — Enbridge (the largest gas provider in Canada, servicing mainly Ontario and Quebec) and FortisBC (British Columbia’s principal gas distributor, serving about 95 per cent of gas users in the province). As B.C. is my home, I’m going to pick on FortisBC for much of this piece, but consider them illustrative.

In a second leaked slide, the consortium notes: “Natural gas (fossil fuel) in for fight of its life.” They are right about that. Hopefully, anyway. But they have no intention of going quietly into the night. Rather, consortium members are exhorted: “Everyone needs to contact legislators in favour of NG (natural gas),” and “Renewable Natural Gas is coming (likely will save NG business).” The slide says partners “have to continue to work together to grow this market.” The messages here cannot be accused of subtlety. They rightly see efforts, particularly at the municipal level, to ban or phase out the use of natural gas in buildings as an existential threat. “The fear of losing market share to non-fossil alternatives terrifies the gas companies,” Greenpeace climate campaigner Keith Stewart wrote in a post about the revelation, “but it should delight the rest of us.”

FortisBC was quick to issue a media release stating the presentation “does not accurately reflect our position on electrification. As a utility with both gas and electric infrastructure, FortisBC sees an important role for both the gas and electric systems to deliver lower-carbon energy to British Columbians. We believe a cleaner future is not an either/or scenario when it comes to energy — it’s ‘all of the above.’ We see gas and electric infrastructures as complementary…” Many of the other consortium members issued similar disclaimers.

Among the many barriers we face to a genuine #ClimateEmergency plan is a fossil fuel industry that has insidiously used its economic and political power to stall meaningful action, writes columnist @SethDKlein. #ClimateAction - Twitter

But as Stewart notes, the consortium’s PowerPoint presentation “says all the usually quiet bits out loud.” As he told me, “It’s always fascinating to compare the political strategy documents of these companies with what they tell the public. We should not be extending them the benefit of the doubt on any of their green claims.”

FortisBC and Enbridge are regulated monopolies — they are the only companies equipped to deliver gas within their jurisdictions, and as such, we effectively grant them a licence to print money. The gas distribution system in B.C. used to be a Crown corporation until it was privatized in the mid-1980s (Fortis acquired the company from a previous private firm in 2007), which means a good chunk of the core infrastructure was publicly built.

Adding to the frustration, ratepayers in Ontario, Quebec and B.C. are effectively paying for these campaigns to block electrification through their utility bills, whether they like it or not. Heck, we all effectively subsidize this mischief, as contributions to consortiums such as this and related political lobbying efforts are considered a pre-tax business expense, notwithstanding that the lobbying and advertising campaigns seek to block and weaken society’s climate policies.

Exhibit B: Thinking of leaving gas? Think again

Last year, my family made the big switch. We abandoned our gas-fuelled space and water heating, installed an electric heat-pump system, swapped the gas stove for induction electric, and with great pleasure shut down the gas line to our home and cancelled our account with FortisBC. It was a complicated undertaking requiring research and perseverance, and even after provincial and municipal rebates, still expensive. But once done, it felt great — like we’d made an important change that was healthier for our family and better for the planet. And we’d done what the B.C. government wants people to do — fuel-switching is central to the province meeting its CleanBC climate plan target.

But then, a few months later, we received the letter below from FortisBC. Well, the red ink text we added, in an irate effort to “fix” the letter and share it — widely ­— on social media.

Causing FortisBC some grief on social media was satisfying. But the question remains — why the hell is Fortis sending letters like this to households that have just done what the B.C. and city governments are asking people to do (and contributing thousands of dollars in rebates encouraging them to do so)? Indeed, why is Fortis permitted to send such letters?

Exhibit C: Efficiency over fuel-switching

Fortis isn’t merely trying to win customers back. It is vigorously doing what it can to keep them from leaving gas in the first place. Ironically, the very CleanBC government website that lists provincial rebates for electric heat pumps also promotes Fortis rebates for households that purchase high-efficiency gas furnaces, boilers and fireplaces (and lists FortisBC as a program sponsor). Say what? Have a look yourself here.

Indeed, just a couple months ago, FortisBC was celebrating record take-up of the rebates it offers for high-efficiency gas products. In contrast, the number of households claiming the B.C. government’s rebates for electric heat pumps has been abysmal. Last month, the Sustainabiliteens (a local youth climate group) received the response below to a freedom-of-information request about how many people claimed heat pump rebates in 2020. It turns out my family was sadly one of only 709 households to do so.

FortisBC also has a program that places “senior energy specialists” within cash-strapped municipal governments across the province. The advisers are employees of the city, but their salaries are paid for by Fortis. The Climate Action Partners program, as it’s known, has been taken up by Surrey, Grand Forks, Kamloops, District of Squamish, District of Saanich, and others. As Fortis explains it, “We provide the funds for the Climate Action Partner to hire a senior energy specialist who will help their new employer reach their climate action goals, whether that’s reducing emissions, improving energy efficiency and/or fostering green energy solutions in their community.” Sounds good, and I’m sure the energy specialists employed are good people committed to lowering GHGs. But to what extent are they encouraging efficiency improvements over fuel-switching? Or pitching natural gas over electric vehicles for municipal fleets? Certainly climate-conscious local governments should exercise caution and stay attuned to such concerns.

Why on earth is the B.C. government hocking rebates on behalf of Fortis? Why is the company so keen to offer rebates for people to purchase new high-efficiency heating systems? And why is FortisBC so keen to embed energy advisers within municipal governments? True, this new equipment will lower GHG emissions. But, more importantly for FortisBC, once purchased, that’s a house or building or vehicle that will not be fuel-switching to a non-fossil fuel for a good 15 years. And that’s the point. For Fortis, this is a growth strategy. The problem for the rest of us is that improved efficiency can’t get us to carbon zero, as the climate emergency demands — only fuel-swapping to non-carbon sources can do that.

FortisBC knows it needs to develop convincing climate programs. Yes, it has a “30BY30” plan to “help reduce our customers’ GHG emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.” But it clearly wants to keep the gas system in place, albeit with a larger share of renewable gas. It has a growth strategy that seeks to expand natural gas use, and so long as that remains true, all its “clean” initiatives are a side show.

Companies like Fortis have a choice. They can quickly seek to reinvent themselves as carbon-zero energy companies. Already, Fortis’s parent company is both an electricity as well as a gas utility. It could table a plan to wind down its fracked gas division, replacing it with a focus on district energy heat recovery and geothermal systems and renewable electricity. But so far, that’s not the path it is choosing.

“It’s going to be an ugly fight,” says Kai Nagata, communications director with the non-profit action group Dogwood, which campaigns on climate issues and has run workshops encouraging people to fuel-swap. (Full disclosure: I’m on Dogwood’s board.) “Fortis is a cornered animal. That’s what the consortium documents reveal. But it’s them or us. It’s their shareholders or our kids. Their future requires more houses tying into gas lines and our future requires the opposite.”

The simple reality is this — if the number of new buildings tying into gas and the number of existing buildings upgrading their gas systems continues to be larger than those switching to electric heat pumps or other non-carbon fuel sources, then we’re not going to hit our climate targets. With trends like this, we’re fried.

It’s time to push back

The problem isn’t merely the fossil fuel corporations that distract us with incremental solutions. More troublesome at this late stage of the crisis are our political leaders whose dominant impulse is to seek to appease the oil and gas industry. They want to compromise and win the industry’s goodwill. They fear the economic power of these companies. They worry if they fail to grant them adequate concessions, we — and they — will suffer the consequences. This climate emergency moment sees too many leaders keen to pre-emptively declare that “peace in our time” has been found with the fossil fuel industry. But surely those days are over.

This fight for our lives has been entirely too polite. It’s time for our leaders to take the kid gloves off, and for the rest of us to demand it. At this late hour, if the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Canada’s oil and gas companies are not feeling deeply anxious about our climate plans, then they are not plans worth having. The calmness with which Canada’s fossil fuel industry has responded to every federal and provincial climate plan we’ve had to date tells you all you need to know about their effectiveness.

Rather than appeasing the fossil fuel industry, what would it look like for our government to meet this moment head on? A few proposals:

  1. Ban all new building hook-ups to gas — next year! We need a moratorium on new gas infrastructure, both major gas lines and minor ones.
  2. We need the government to expedite getting all existing public and commercial buildings off gas within the next few years. That needs to be mandated. And the government needs to enhance rebates and lower the costs for existing homes to both fuel-swap and improve their envelope efficiency.
  3. Ban fossil fuel advertising (ads for fossil fuel vehicles, gas stations and oil and gas companies) and end the sponsorship of CAPP and its members from sports and cultural events. Why do we allow these companies and industry associations to sponsor government conferences, such as the Union of BC Municipalities convention and the Lower Mainland Local Government Association? Why does a monopoly provider like Fortis or Enbridge need to advertise?
  4. Remove fossil fuel corporate representatives from governmental climate advisory bodies. The B.C. government’s Climate Solutions Council includes reps from Teck Resources and Shell. I’m sure they are nice people. But these bodies operate by consensus. Give these corporate reps a fair hearing, but our climate plans shouldn’t require their agreement.
  5. As regulated monopolies, our governments should flex some muscle and set clear conditions with respect to allowable conduct by the fossil fuel companies we permit to operate in our communities. And when those conditions are violated, there must be consequences. If these corporations are engaged in alliances to weaken climate policies, haul them before a legislative committee to explain themselves publicly. If, as the gas companies claim, the Consortium to Block Electrification does not represent their views, then Greenpeace’s Stewart proposes that we make them enclose a disclaimer — one singing the praises of electrification — within every utility bill they mail to their customers (hey, everyone opens those letters). If they are conspiring in political campaigns to block electrification, dock them from lobbying access to public officials. If these companies are shown to be acting against society’s climate goals, fine them. If it persists, pull their licences. Meaning, make their political strategies inoperable.

In the end, the fossil fuel companies can be expected to do what they are hardwired to do — protect and enhance shareholder value. The onus is on our elected leaders to demand something different. To our ministers of energy and environment, in every part of this country: you hold vital portfolios at a historic juncture. Be the champions this moment requires. Stop playing so nice and show a little grit. It’s an emergency.

For more on how the fossil fuel industry blocks climate progress, see the work of the Corporate Mapping Project, which has systematically exposed the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry in Canada, a dynamic the project refers to as a “regime of obstruction.”