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Heather Exner-Pirot: Don’t overthink it, Canada—we need natural gas now more than ever

Commentary

Two provincial energy regulator decisions, released quietly in late December, show how climate ambitions are starting to override energy realities in policy-making. The consequences are likely to be felt as energy shortages within the next three years.   

On December 21, the Ontario Energy Board denied Enbridge’s proposed capital budget as part of a new rate application. Citing concerns about stranded natural gas assets, and emboldened by ambitions for the energy transition, the OEB reduced the revenue horizon that Enbridge uses to determine the economic feasibility of new gas connections from 40 years to zero. In effect, this means residential customers would have to absorb the full cost of new gas connections upfront instead of over four decades, as is the current practice. Enbridge forecasts the decision will lead to a shortfall in energy supply as early as 2025. 

The province’s energy minister, Todd Smith, objected to the decision immediately, committing to pause and reverse the decision. They have now introduced legislation to do so, saying it would slow or even halt the construction of affordable homes amidst the housing crisis.

Meanwhile, on December 22, the British Columbia Utilities Commission rejected FortisBC’s application to increase its pipeline capacity in the central and north Okanagan regions. FortisBC had argued the expansion was necessary to accommodate the increase in peak natural gas demand due to a growing population in the region. The BCUC found that FortisBC’s proposal did not reflect the commitments made in the province’s CleanBC Roadmap and did not consider building step codes that may be adopted by municipalities. Step codes set progressively lower acceptable GHG emission levels for new homes. For its part, FortisBC forecasts the decision would lead to a shortfall in energy supply as early as winter 2026/27. 

These decisions make it clear that climate change ambitions have taken a front seat with Canada’s energy regulators. This represents a shift beyond the core mandate of an economic regulator, which is to ensure energy costs for consumers are fair and investments by utilities are prudently incurred. 

The decisions share these flawed assumptions: (1) that climate policies should be accepted as determinative of future energy system design, rather than as aspirational targets; (2) that more risk should be assigned to the possibility of stranded assets than to the threat of energy shortages; (3) that Canada has the ability to generate and deliver the amount of electricity needed to replace natural gas in the timeframes policymakers prefer; and (4) that the natural gas market will erode due to the energy transition, even as we observe increased consumption to meet not only a growing population but new sources of energy demand from data centres, AI, and other drivers. 

In Canada, as elsewhere, we currently benefit from three major energy systems operating in parallel: a liquids system for fuels like diesel and gasoline, primarily for transportation; a gas system for natural gas (and increasingly hydrogen and renewable natural gas), primarily for heating; and a grid for electrons, for electricity. 

Natural gas represents the largest share of this overall mix. Of the nearly 12,000 petajoules consumed by Canadians annually, natural gas represents 37.5 percent, refined petroleum products 36.9 percent, and electricity 17.5 percent (of which 13 percent is generated by natural gas). While residential and commercial natural gas consumption is highly seasonal, it shows no signs of declining: Statistics Canada data up to 2023 indicate record demand in winter of that year, commensurate with a fast-growing population. 

Natural gas’ popularity is linked to its affordability: it is the cheapest source of energy in Canada. Even at 2022 prices, which were higher than the five-year average and saw natural gas around $5/GJ, it cost the equivalent of $0.018 per kwh of electricity or $0.17 per litre of gasoline.  

To the consumer, affordability is perhaps natural gas’ greatest attribute. In Ontario, for example, the list of communities that want natural gas access far outweighs the capital available to connect them all to the system. The provincial Conservatives have been supporting the expansion of the gas pipeline system to serve markets currently reliant on higher-priced energy sources such as propane, heating oil, and electricity. 

But from an energy security perspective, redundancy and diversity in energy supply are also very important. Calls to “electrify everything” are not only logistically and economically unrealistic, but highly risky. In Canada, a prolonged grid failure would create emergencies for Canadians in the summer and be catastrophic in the winter. 

Having separate energy systems provides better security not only against weather-induced failures but from physical and cyber attacks as well. Pipelines and electricity grids are both vulnerable due to their ubiquity and strategic importance and form regular targets for adversaries, terrorists, and criminals. In 2022 the U.S. Department of Energy saw attacks on the grid increase by 77 percent, and in North America, the energy industry was the most common target for cyber attacks. Deliberating moving to an energy system that relies on a single network is reckless. 

In addition, electrons and molecules play very different roles in our energy system and are not interchangeable. Electricity tends to be more “stock” based and oil and natural gas are “flow” based. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Commentators will often argue that energy security would be enhanced by more reliance on long-life assets such as dams, windmills, and solar panels that produce electricity with free inputs of water, wind, and solar energy once the upfront investment is made. Energy from fossil fuels, by contrast, depends on a constant input, or flow, of products. Because oil and natural gas are traded globally, they are susceptible to price volatility and supply shocks. 

But the benefit of flows is that you can store the product and subsequently ramp it up to meet peaks in demand. Advanced economies generally have months’ worth of oil and natural gas in storage. Canada has 950 billion cubic feet of natural gas storage, enough for approximately 63 days of winter demand. On a cold January day, you can ramp up flows of natural gas to meet the surge in heating demands. Electricity, by contrast, is consumed instantly and cannot be built up in advance.

As an example, in the severe cold snap that hit Alberta this winter, electricity demand set a new all-time peak record of 12,384 MW on January 13. Demand came very close to exceeding what the electricity system was able to supply, prompting an emergency grid alert calling on Albertans to reduce power usage. At the same time, the natural gas system delivered over 110,340 MW of energy, or about nine times as much as electricity. It is impossible to imagine an energy system able to handle peak demand in Canada using only electricity. 

Piping is seen on the top of a receiving platform which will be connected to the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline terminus at the LNG Canada export terminal under construction, in Kitimat, B.C., on Wednesday, September 28, 2022. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

While B.C. and Ontario have slightly more favourable climates than Alberta, it is not uncommon for the Okanagan or Ottawa to dip to the -30s, and Toronto can see -20s. These are life-threatening temperatures. With an addition of a million Canadians a year, it is hard to see how our current and planned electricity generation could replace our incremental natural gas needs on a very cold day. Yet that is the situation that regulators in B.C. and Ontario are engineering.  

If restricting natural gas supply looks reckless from an affordability and reliability perspective, one must acknowledge that the intentions on the sustainability side are legitimate. Natural gas is cleaner and less carbon-intensive than coal and heating oil, but it still emits carbon dioxide. How do we bridge the need for gas molecules in our energy system with the need to lower emissions? 

Strategies generally include a combination of carbon capture, hydrogen blending, and renewable natural gas. All of these have tremendous potential and are advancing from the research & development phase to commercialization. But they will invariably confer higher costs to consumers. The appetite of Canadians to pay more in energy costs, when given a choice from their utility to purchase lower-emitting sources of energy, is low. While there is an almost perfect overlap between natural gas customers and voters in Canada, their policy preferences when paying utility bills and when lining up at the ballot box have looked very different. Those preferences are about to collide. 

In Canada, we have been able to take our energy supply for granted. On our current policy trajectory, we will soon lose that luxury. 

Aaron Pete: I am a First Nations politician. Our chiefs and leaders must be held more accountable

Commentary

Growing up I often heard about the challenges with chief and council leadership. It’s not difficult to find stories on social media, including countless TikToks shared by First Nations people, about leadership problems. As a First Nations person with a keen interest in politics, I’ve always admired good leadership when I saw it. Leaders like Chief Derek Epp, Chief David Jimmie, Chief Clarence Louie, and Chief Willie Sellars stood out to me as excellent examples of true community leaders. Sadly they are the exception rather than the rule.

My upbringing has been shaped by my single mother born with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, a consequence of her mother using alcohol to cope with the traumas of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Northern Ontario. This personal history has given me a deep understanding of what “intergenerational trauma” actually means. Growing up, we lived near the poverty line, often running out of money a week before the next social assistance cheque. School was tough too. Teachers doubted my potential, suggesting to my mother during parent-teacher conferences that I was more likely to drop out and join a gang than graduate.

However, I used these challenges as motivation. I graduated from the University of the Fraser Valley with a degree in criminology and criminal justice. I then worked to help Indigenous people navigate the criminal justice system and earned a law degree from the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. Not long after that, I ran for a position in chief and council for my community in British Columbia at 26 years of age. Today I am a councillor for Chawathil First Nation, a place my family has called home since before Canada became a country. 

Effective governance is critical for our communities, where overcoming challenges like addiction, poverty, housing shortages, crime, and unemployment hinges on strong leadership and administrative integrity. Yet, many First Nation communities face serious issues of corruption, nepotism, and collusion.

In 2022, the chief of Westbank First Nation stepped down over corruption concerns within his band. At Seabird Island First Nation, a finance department employee was sent to jail after embezzling $2.3 million between 2005 and 2013. In Peters First Nation, an investigation into leadership revealed nepotism and prompted an RCMP inquiry into the misappropriation of funds. Similarly, concerns arose in Frog Lake First Nation when $120 million in net assets went missing.

First Nation struggles are complex, with roots in historical injustices. Yet, as leaders, we must also look within and recognize our role. We are not just caretakers of the land but agents of change, tasked with the sacred duty of uplifting our people. Unfortunately, the silence around the fulfillment of our own electoral promises is deafening. As leaders, we should be starting conversations about our progress and actively seeking feedback.

Our Indigenous community members work hard to provide for their families. They deserve leaders who are relentless in their pursuit of providing better education, community supports, and job opportunities. They need us to form alliances that reflect our values. They need us to secure funding for crucial infrastructure like housing.

The often sad realities of chief and council

I’ve now served as a council member for my community Chawathil First Nation (about 10 minutes outside of Hope, B.C.) for more than 18 months, and I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of accountable governance. Chief and council are often compared to a municipal government’s mayor and councillors. Similarly, we are responsible for ensuring the management of our administration office, sitting on various subcommittees, representing the community in forums and meetings, and advocating for change. But these First Nation leaders are unique because we are also responsible for managing reserve land, housing projects, and economic development opportunities, as well as meetings about our traditional territory (land that is not on the reserve but is where our nation was traditionally located). We’re also tasked with encouraging our members to pursue higher education, find gainful employment, and then bring that knowledge and experience back to the community. 

When I campaigned for council, there were no candidate forums, debates, or policy discussions; leadership choices were often reduced to familiar surnames on a ballot. I chose to run on a platform of increased economic development and a commitment to raise more money for community services. I hosted two all-candidate meetings with the one other council member who agreed to attend. I spoke with our local reporter and explained my vision of a bid for chief. While I was unsuccessful in my run for chief, losing by only 18 votes, I was elected as a council member. Without a clear presentation of goals and platforms, how can Indigenous community members make informed decisions about their leadership?

The role a chief or council member can play in our communities is significant. Prior to my arrival all 89 of our homes had significant health and safety issues. There was overcrowding and no plan for home repairs. There wasn’t even a housing manager or targets for new developments.

Once I took on the housing portfolio we turned a corner. To date, we’ve appointed a housing manager, completed extensive repairs in 20 units, and are in the process of renovating another 15 in the next six months. It is my goal that by the end of my term in September 2025, every home in our community will be repaired.  We’ve laid out a five-year strategy and are gearing up to apply for 30 new housing units.

The house that Louis Okimaw and his son live which has been deemed not fit for human habitation in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat, Ont., on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.
Journalists must hold our elected officials to account

The role of the media is vital in our communities. Investigative journalism must celebrate our wins, but also scrutinize our governance and constructively critique our failures. It is a catalyst for discussion and accountability. I’ve experienced the benefits of such scrutiny and understand its power to spark progress.

We all know the critical role journalism plays in local government. In one well-known Brookings study, researchers found newspaper closures had a direct causal impact on local government public finance. A loss of local newspapers meant a loss of accountability. The study showed that when newspapers folded, it led to an increase in government waste, corruption, and less informed voters. With 630 First Nation communities in Canada and journalism on the decline, one wonders how many investigative stories are simply being missed.

Canadian journalism is facing major financial hurdles. But it is crucial for the pursuit of reconciliation and addressing poverty in vulnerable communities. Supporting organizations such as IndigiNews, Overstory Media Group, and local journalists with increased funding is essential for covering local stories. We also need entities like the Assembly of First Nations to push for enhanced financial backing for these and other organizations dedicated to local investigative journalism, including coverage of chief and council meetings.

Ensuring a brighter future

Our communities grapple with significant challenges, including high rates of poverty, crime, and addiction, alongside lower levels of educational attainment and employment. 

In 2019, a study showed that 53 percent of First Nation children on reserve live in poverty. A 2020 report found that crime in Indigenous communities was six times higher than in non-Indigenous communities. Violent crime was almost nine times higher. Sixty-eight percent of non-Indigenous people have completed postsecondary education. But only 45.3 percent of First Nations people have.

First Nation communities are responsible for their own infrastructure like housing, water and sewage systems, and infrastructure. While the chief and council can’t single-handedly fix these issues, they can advocate for increased funding for educational opportunities, addiction services, and cultural support. Further, they can meet with stakeholders from Indigenous Services Canada, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and others to develop a plan to improve conditions.

I am certain First Nation communities are being held back from succeeding by leaders without a clear vision for improvement. This stagnation must be brought to light. As a community, we need to understand our leaders’ plans—or lack thereof—and hold them accountable.

I hear from members of other First Nation communities in my region who say their political leaders are not doing enough to address staffing issues or improve housing conditions. They add that some leaders are merely acting in their family’s own best interest. First Nations’ socio-economic success stories are celebrated because they are still the exception rather than the norm.

An Indigenous cultural shift is overdue. We need an environment where media scrutiny is routine, where community engagement is vigorous, and where stakeholders are held accountable. Leaders should welcome this shift, as it strengthens our strategies and reinforces our commitment.

I envision a culture of accountability, where leaders don’t just lead but also answer to the community. Where success is not just celebrated but also measured. Where every community member feels empowered to question and demand answers. 

Increased accountability and community engagement can lay the groundwork for First Nation communities to share their wisdom and culture, enriching Canadian society. 

As I advocate for this change, I extend an invitation to journalists, community members, and my fellow leaders to join in this newfound commitment to transparency and progress. It is crucial to remember that chief and council meetings are public forums. Despite some exceptions, there is ample opportunity for increased journalistic presence to shed light on decision-making and accountability.

We must acknowledge our vulnerabilities and commit to identifying and improving our weakest links. Only by holding our leaders accountable for their actions—or inactions—can we enact meaningful progress.

Together, let’s build a future where every First Nation community flourishes, guided by values of transparency, accountability, and continued progress.