Ottawa backs away from study of alternative energy for Centennial Flame

The Liberal government has abandoned a plan to study options to cut the flow of natural gas to the Centennial Flame, part a "greening" project to reduce carbon emissions. The reversal follows a social-media campaign by the oil and gas industry that suggested the government was undermining national unity.

Government retreats in face of pressure from natural gas sector

The Liberal government has abandoned a study into whether to cut the flow of natural gas to the Centennial Flame monument, after the gas industry rallied Canadians on social media. (Philippe Turgeon/CBC)

The federal government has doused a project aimed at "greening" the Centennial Flame after the oil and gas industry launched a social media campaign to keep the iconic landmark fuelled by natural gas.

Public Services and Procurement Canada quietly launched a study last fall into options to cut the flow of natural gas from Western Canada to the popular Parliament Hill monument, and replace it with a more eco-friendly energy source.

Among the possibilities cited by the department were LED lights to replace the flame, which emits the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide — contributing (in a very small way) to climate change.

Patrick McCurdy, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa, calls the reversal on the Centennial Flame study an important symbolic victory for the gas industry. (twitter.com)

But the move, first reported last month by CBC News, touched a nerve in the energy industry.

The president of the Canadian Gas Association, Timothy Egan, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on May 3 objecting to the study, and launched a Twitter campaign using the #keepcanadasflame hashtag.

"The flame is a unifying symbol in what it does," says the letter, copied to four cabinet ministers. "It draws on a fuel that moves across our country, uniting the regions in a unique and powerful way."

'Show support'

The campaign, endorsed by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) through its Energy Citizens social media sites, urged Canadians to send a form letter to Trudeau.

"Right now is a critical time in our country's history," says the form letter. "We need to show support for our oil and gas sector which provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to our economy."

CAPP board members also wrote an opinion piece that appeared in the National Post. It asked: "How can we expect the world to buy our natural gas when it's not welcome on the steps of Parliament?"

A spokesman for Public Services and Procurement Canada, Pierre-Alain Bujold, confirmed this week the "greening" study has been abandoned. He did not cite a specific reason for the about-face.

"We've recognized the symbolic value of the Centennial Flame," he said.

The change of heart comes in a week of high political tension in the energy sector. The federal government is clashing with British Columbia's NDP government, which is fighting efforts by Kinder Morgan Canada to expand a pipeline to the West Coast.

A small but symbolic victory.- Communications Professor Patrick McCurdy

The Twitter handle @canadasflame has fewer than 30 followers, though the campaign was also promoted by CAPP's Energy Citizens group of social-media platforms, with larger Twitter, Facebook and Instagram followings.

A communications professor at the University of Ottawa who follows the oil and gas industry says the social media campaign was an inexpensive way to "mobilize supporters and give them a taste of victory."

"In an age of outrage politics, this is exactly what the Canadian Gas Association, CAPP and others were looking for," said Patrick McCurdy.

"A small but symbolic victory where they can not only claim impact, they can use it as a means to mobilize sympathizers in the ongoing struggle over energy … From a social movement perspective these wins are important for group identity and solidarity."

McCurdy likened the Centennial Flame climb-down to a similar campaign by environmental activists in 2015 that successfully pressured Tim Hortons to remove Enbridge ads from screens at more than 1,500 stores.

The Centennial Flame monument, created in 1967, burns natural gas purchased from Enbridge, which gets the fuel mostly from Alberta, though it draws on other sources in Western Canada and elsewhere.

Offset will continue

Last September, Public Services began paying Bullfrog Power about $20,000 a year for an arrangement billed as a "net-zero" for carbon-dioxide emissions.

Bullfrog Power supplies the natural-gas distribution system with bio-methane in an amount equal to the natural gas being burned in the monument.

The decision to abandon the Centennial Flame study comes at a moment of national tension over plans by Kinder Morgan Canada to move forward with a pipeline project. (The Canadian Press)

It adds the bio-methane — sometimes called 'biogas' — to existing natural-gas pipeline networks as an offset to the emissions generated by burning natural gas in the monument.

Bujold said that arrangement, as well as the Enbridge gas supply, will continue.

"There are currently no plans to replace the fuel source for the Centennial Flame," he said. "The contract with Bullfrog Power will continue as planned."

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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

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