Oil and gas companies are still major sponsors at an annual municipal leaders conference even as B.C. reels from a provincewide drought and a fire season driven by climate change.
It’s a contradiction that dismays many municipal and political leaders attending the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) annual convention this week in Vancouver.
Climate change is one of the top issues at the gathering, with local leaders slated to attend a host of workshops and provincial policy sessions on managing the risks and health impacts of wildfires, emergency disaster response and creating climate-resilient communities.
For the second year in a row, FortisBC is the patron for both the convention’s reception and banquet and is deemed a platinum sponsor. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Coastal GasLink are gold and silver sponsors, with the BC Recycles association recognized with a bronze designation.
Trans Mountain, the entity behind the contentious pipeline expansion project that may result in taxpayers eating $17 million in debt, is hosting the UBCM’s continental breakfast this morning. Oil and gas corporation ads feature prominently in the convention’s program.
With UBCM sponsorship comes visibility – before, during and after the conference.
Sponsors “gain awareness, recognition and access to over 2,000 local government officials and staff through advertising opportunities, networking events and speaking opportunities,” according to the UBCM website.
In recent years, Fortis has pushed back hard as municipalities consider eliminating natural gas hookups in new buildings, making a shift to electricity – which, generated by hydropower in B.C., produces much fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
As of May 1, B.C’s building code changed to require most new buildings boost energy efficiency by 20 per cent or more. The Zero Carbon Step Code also allows local governments to craft bylaws to require lower emissions, optionally in stages, to meet the provincial target that all new homes are net-zero by 2030.
And earlier this month, Nanaimo city council voted to develop bylaws to phase out natural gas to heat homes and water in new buildings by July 1, 2024 – six years ahead of the provincial deadline.
Given the UBCM convention’s focus on climate impacts, it flies in the face of logic that the convention’s top sponsors continue to be fossil fuel companies, said Vancouver Coun. Christine Boyle.
It’s particularly concerning FortisBC is the key sponsor after it lobbied heavily against the Nanaimo decision, she said.
“Those policies are incredibly important and having fossil fuel companies actively lobby against badly needed climate action damages the work that local governments are doing,” she said.
“I think it also distorts our democracy and the work that locally elected leaders are doing, so I have huge concerns about it.”
Providing FortisBC the opportunity to lobby at the convention is problematic, agreed Nanaimo Coun. Ben Geselbracht.
“The optics are terrible,” he said.
Fortis presented to the council and reached out to individual councillors a number of times prior to council’s decision, Geselbracht noted.
What’s more, the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC), an Alberta publicly publically-funded provincial corporation – dubbed the war room – created to promote the fossil fuel industry, is waging a campaign to push Nanaimo council to reverse its phaseout decision that negatively impacts FortisBC.
While not illegal, it’s questionable behaviour for FortisBC, which already has an influential role in policy decisions in the province, to put up such a fight over eliminating natural gas to heat residences, Geselbracht said.
The technology is already in place to reduce residential emissions through electrification, necessary for the decarbonization targets communities must meet, he added.
Turning the heat on small municipalities looking to achieve their climate goals is counterproductive and contrary to FortisBC’s sustainable messaging, he stressed.
FortisBC has a proposal before the BC Utilities Commission for permission to sell 100 per cent renewable natural gas (RNG) to every new building in the province.
The company is also seeking to expand the definition of “renewable” to include other gases, like so-called “blue” and “turquoise” hydrogen, both made from conventional natural gas.
Critics have denounced the scheme as greenwashing. RNG is typically methane captured from sewage, landfills, wood and farm animal waste. However, it is virtually identical to fossil gas in its makeup and is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year span if it seeps into the atmosphere.
FortisBC suggests 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 a critical look at a key 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.
At this point, most renewable natural gas sold in B.C. takes the form of credits generated from other companies selling biomethane outside the province, FortisBC told Canada’s National Observer in April.
Rather than throw obstacles in the path of municipalities looking to reach net zero, FortisBC should focus on areas where it can make real reductions, Geselbracht said.
“A more productive use of their resources and the energy behind lobbying could go towards actually working on technologies and things necessary to power the many other sectors where it’s going to be hard to decarbonize,” he said.
The campaign being waged by the CEC to have Nanaimo reverse its decision doesn’t worry him too much, said Geselbracht.
“It’s a strong lobby, but to be totally honest, there’s a much stronger optimism and support in the community for honest, real, and necessary climate action.”
The heavy presence of fossil fuels advertisers at the convention is an ongoing topic of debate among attendees, Boyle said.
“It’s reflective of the oversized and inappropriate influence that fossil fuel companies including Fortis have on local government,” she said.
Fossil fuel companies at the convention contributed close to 15 per cent of this year’s total sponsorship revenue, a number consistent with previous years, the UBCM told Canada’s National Observer in an email.
The total corporate sponsorship revenue for recent years was not provided, but from 2014 to 2018, it averaged 20 per cent of the event’s income, ranging between $250,000 and $344,000 annually, according to UBCM documents.
Municipalities and individual politicians are regularly subjected to lobbying at the convention, and elsewhere, to continue the expansion of oil and gas, Boyle said, noting accepting fossil fuel sponsorship was akin to accepting advertising from tobacco companies.
Political debate over banning fossil fuel advertising at the convention typically focuses on the added cost local governments and leaders face to attend being passed on to taxpayers, she added.
Yet, Fortis is spending hefty sums on sponsorships, lobbying efforts and advertising to promote natural gas, and the cost of that is being shouldered by ratepayers, Boyle said.
However, municipal politicians in the southern region of B.C. balked at banning fossil fuel sponsorships at the regional Lower Mainland Local Government Association conference in May.
Peers at the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities convention in April rejected a similar motion that also wanted oil and gas advertising curtailed at the UBCM.
A 2019 UBCM review about possibly limiting corporate sponsorship only led to a ban on foreign sponsorship.
The convention’s sponsors include a diverse range of industries and interests, and delegates can decide if they will attend sponsored events, the UBCM email noted.
Convention delegates hear a wide range of perspectives, and the UBCM welcomes various interests to engage with delegates through the trade show, receptions and other venues, the statement added.
“We know that many of our delegates find it useful to be able to have conversations with organizations and convey their feedback directly.”
– With files from Marc Fawcett-Atkinson
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer