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Decarbonization the latest buzzword from gas companies

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Fortis, one of Canada’s largest gas utilities, has laid out its vision for survival in a world that is moving away from fossil fuels: use more gas.

Recently, a Fortis representative on a panel discussion attended by more than 100 people positioned natural gas as an integral part of the shift to clean energy. Doug Slater, FortisBC’s vice-president of Indigenous relations and regulatory affairs, said gas is a necessary backup for heating and electricity production and a delivery service for hydrogen, which is touted as a cleaner fuel by fossil fuel and hydrogen industry groups.

“The gas system is a platform for decarbonization” because it can provide heat and electricity when there is high demand, Slater said. To achieve this, Slater said, FortisBC is “absolutely going to need (new) customers.”

He claimed the natural gas of the future will be largely so-called “renewable natural gas” made from organic waste or manure, hydrogen or gas blended with hydrogen, but that shifting to these potentially less harmful fuels requires the cash new customers generate.

However, according to FortisBC’s own projections, RNG will only ever meet a fraction of B.C.’s demand. The remainder of its supply will come from so-called “blue” and “turquoise” hydrogen, which are made from fossil fuels and can be blended with natural gas. Experts agree that we must stop extracting fossil fuels to prevent even more dangerous planetary heating.

The company’s insistence that it must expand comes during a budding trend by Canadian municipalities to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings. Researchers warn that curtailing the growth of fossil fuel infrastructure and replacing gas with more sustainable alternatives is key to preventing runaway climate change.

Efforts to ban gas are being countered by an offensive from big players in Canada’s natural gas industry. From B.C. to Quebec, gas companies are using anonymous online campaigns, lobbying and lawsuits to stall these climate efforts.

“FortisBC is in a very challenging place,” said Jessica McIlroy, manager of the Pembina Institute’s buildings program. “They need as many people connected as possible. And that’s really like the only way that the business plan works out.”

On the panel with Slater, Dan Woynillowicz, B.C. Hydro’s external energy adviser and principal at Polaris Strategy + Insight, agreed gas can help reduce the province’s emissions — but only in certain circumstances.

Fortis, one of Canada’s largest gas utilities, has laid out its vision for survival in a world that is moving away from fossil fuels — use more gas. 

Meeting B.C.’s future energy needs will take “megawatts and molecules, it’s not either-or,” he said.

Some industrial processes and facilities will continue to need gas, he acknowledged. However, houses, commercial operations and other facilities will be better able to transition to more sustainable and efficient electric alternatives like heat pumps. This shift must be prioritized, he said.

“That may well lead to a situation [where] the gas system looks quite different in terms of its size (and) what types of needs it’s meeting,” he said.

However, the actions of FortisBC and other Canadian gas utilities against municipal efforts to eliminate the fuel in residential and commercial buildings suggest they will not accept a curtailing of their home heating distribution system without a fight. Municipal rules limiting industry access to future customers make it hard for the company to “build the infrastructure we need in B.C. to provide ample energy,” Slater said.

Industry groups have for months been fighting to retain access to those customers. Last year, FortisBC pushed the B.C. Utilities Commission to let it label blue hydrogen, which is made from fossil fuels, as “renewable,” circumventing municipal bans on new natural gas hookups. In Quebec, the provincial utility Énergir sued a town of 12,000 for its rules restricting natural gas use. The municipal government and company settled the lawsuit in January.

And for the past several weeks, hundreds of people across Canada have received targeted ads from Voice for Energy, a pro-gas group with links to the industry.

Slater did not hide why the industry has been vociferous in its fight against cities: climate rules.

“We’re absolutely going to need those customers,” he said.

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