It’s a gas leak of a different kind. Recently, a copy of the Ontario government’s climate change action plan was leaked to the media. The big controversy in the document is a suggestion that home heating with natural gas and oil will be phased out and no longer permitted in new homes after 2030 in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even though that’s 14 years away, even the slightest suggestion of no longer having gas as a heating option is getting a pretty cool reception from many Ontario residents. For decades, many Ontario homeowners have been switching to gas and getting rid of oil because of the lower cost, higher efficiency, and abundant supply. Residents and councils in towns without connections to gas pipelines still lobby gas companies and energy regulators to expand to their communities. The provincial government is ironically even attempting to expand the natural gas industry through economic development programs.
Due to regulatory changes and renewable generation policies over the past 20 years, Ontario’s electricity rates have gone from among the lowest in Canada, to the highest. Homeowners aren’t exactly eager to start heating their houses with electricity because of that. It’s totally opposite from the 1980s when Ontario Hydro ran a TV advertising campaign with a talking oil furnace named Fillmore (as in, fill with more oil), encouraging people to turf their oil-thirsty furnace and “Go Electric.” Of course in much of rural and northern Ontario, good old fashioned wood is still the fuel of choice for many homeowners during the winter months. They either cut it on their own properties or buy it from a nearby supplier. Some heat with wood and oil combination furnaces and try to use as much wood as possible to keep oil costs down. “Getting the wood in”—which usually means stacking it in a basement or shed, is a late summer ritual for many rural Ontarians.
Opposition politicians in the legislature have loudly criticized the government’s plan, saying it will end up being a huge financial burden on residents and homebuilders alike. Home heating is a pretty important thing in Ontario. Depending on the weather, it’s not unusual to have the furnace turned on from October to April. Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray has shifted into political damage control gear and will not deny the report exists, but says the government is not trying to eliminate natural gas as a heating source. Premier Kathleen Wynne has also insisted that natural gas will not be outlawed. With political leadership saying one thing, and a policy plan saying another, Ontario residents are wondering exactly what is going on and what the government is planning to do.
Ironically, Canada’s oil and gas industry started in Ontario back in 1858 with the discovery of oil in the southwestern part of the province, a year before Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, leading to the beginnings of John D. Rockefeller’s fortune. Although it is far from a big producer, there are still over 2,400 working oil and gas wells in Ontario, mostly in the southwest. Union Gas, now owned by Houston-based Spectra Energy, has its head office in Chatham. Companies like it, and those small wells at the corners of farm fields along rural roads, exist mostly to provide heat to homes. What is their future if their product can no longer be used for that?
Gas seems to be a recurring source of pain for the Ontario government. Before the current controversy started, there was the scandal over the Liberal cabinet cancelling the construction of two gas-fired power generating stations in the Toronto area during the 2011 election campaign. The power plants were unpopular with local residents and Liberal legislators representing the areas around them were facing defeat. The cancellation was seen as an expensive political move because it led to $950 million in penalties the government had to pay to construction companies who had already started building the plants. Back in the 1950s, three cabinet members of the Conservative government at the time, along with a provincial Supreme Court judge got into trouble for speculating—and profiting on stock in a natural gas company in northern Ontario. As for the present day climate change plan and the questions it raises of how future Ontario residents will keep themselves warm during the winter, the government says full details and explanation of exactly what it wants to do will be released officially in the weeks and months ahead.