The idyllic, world-class ski town of Whistler, in Canada’s west coast province of British Columbia, is dealing with major fallout after the mayor sent a letter to Alberta-based Canadian Natural Resources Ltd and a handful of other oil and gas companies asking them to pay for climate-related damages to the municipality. Whistler is one of sixteen British Columbia communities that have sent similar letters since the summer of 2017 to oil and gas companies, but it is the first municipality to single out a Canadian firm to pay the damages.

The letter writing campaign has been spearheaded by West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), a Canadian activist group. According to WCEL the letters are the first step in shifting the conversation towards “accountability” and the next step is for local governments to “come together in a joint lawsuit to claim compensation for the costs of preparing for climate change.”

Business to Move Elsewhere in Response to Letter

The letter came shortly before a large conference of institutional investors was set to take place in Whistler this January, but conference organizer Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) announced that the oil and gas portion of the conference would be canceled after other Canadian energy companies decided not to attend, citing the mayor’s letter. Specifically, CIBC told the oil and gas companies:

“In recognition of your collective and justified frustration, we do not want to put you in a position of choosing between our conference and doing what is right. We are therefore removing the oil and gas presentation stream from our conference website.”

The fallout from the letter will cost Whistler in the future as well. CIBC added that they are looking to relocate their entire conference going forward, after holding it in Whistler for the last 22 years. Other municipalities may wake up to the potential economic cost of joining WCEL’s campaign after observing the consequences in Whistler.

Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton apologized to the companies in a Facebook video and acknowledged Whistler’s own dependency on fossil fuels:

“We recognize that there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians that work directly and indirectly in the oil and gas sector and they are very proud of the work they do. We know that you are facing challenging times. As so many people have said to me over the last several days, we are a user of Canada’s energy. Whistler acknowledges as a community that we depend on fossil fuels.” (emphasis added)

Stewart Muir, the Executive Director of Canadian non-profit Resource Works, pointed out that Mayor Compton ironically runs an online business for gas-powered taxis, buses and limousines:

Letter ‘Extremely Hypocritical’ and ‘Naïve’

The reaction to Whistler’s letter was swift and overwhelmingly negative, as many saw it as hypocritical coming from a town dependent on tourism, which means it boasts an outsized carbon footprint.

Alberta Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous addressed a rally of 1500 pro-oil and gas protestors who were outraged by Whistler’s actions:

“‘The people of Whistler need to tell the truth: that they are using Alberta gas for their cars for their petrochemical products, and they’re using our oil and it’s time to smarten up,’ he told the rally.”

The debate is also raging on Twitter at #BoycottWhistler, with WCEL campaigner Andrew Gage attempting to spin the debate in his direction, but people are not buying it:

The sting from Whistler’s letter was extra harsh in Alberta, where the oil and gas industry is suffering from low commodity prices. The province recently took the nearly unprecedented action to mandate local producers temporarily cut their production. Albertan oil producers have been blocked in part by environmental activists in British Columbia, who opposed the Trans-Mountain pipeline which would have tripled the amount of oil Albertan producers could have exported to other markets.

San Francisco Funding?

Now that the issue is attracting additional attention, Canadians may be interested to know who is funding WCEL. Indeed, WCEL has received funding from foreign foundations such as the Geneva-based Oak Foundation – who has also been involved in efforts to promote similar litigation in the United States via its San Francisco-based ClimateWorks Foundation. One Calgary-based organization has already asked the Competition Bureau of Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency to delist WCEL and investigate ClimateWork’s influence on Canadian climate and energy policies.

Local leaders may now view this campaign with increased skepticism now that the potential political ramifications have come into full view in Whistler. Ultimately the letters are sowing further division in an already polarized debate.