House Call with Carol Hughes

Gas prices go well beyond taxes

Most of us understand that breaking society’s reliance on fossil fuels will be an important part of addressing our environmental challenges. At the same time, we are firmly entrenched in a culture that relies on these fuels, especially for transportation. Until electric vehicles become competitive in terms of price, performance (think towing), and the ability to cover great distances, we will remain reliant on combustion fueled vehicles. That means most of us buy gas at the pump where fluctuating prices and a sense of being gouged are common features.

In the North, we feel this more but no matter where we live Canadians are routinely subjected to prices that fluctuate wildly, mainly due to speculation and market jitters. Most of that guess work relates to global security, but other factors such as refinery capacity come into play. Even with that knowledge there is a nagging suspicion that more could be done to ensure those prices are fair.

While some politicians have pointed at the carbon tax as the breaking point for Canadians at the pump, statistics don’t really bear that out since the big leap we experienced after its roll out was mirrored at the pumps in the US. On top of that, prices were this high under the previous government’s run. Whether you like it or not, the carbon tax isn’t responsible for a big jump in fuel prices and anything beyond four cents a litre is on fuel companies that raise prices for things as notional as seasonal adjustments. Ask yourself if the same carbon-tax crusading politicians are willing to challenge the companies setting the price at the pumps and the honest answer is no.

A look at the registered lobbying record for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) might help explain why the official opposition isn’t interested in that path. During Stephen Harper’s majority, the CAPP lobbied them over 100 times. While that has dropped in recent years, it might be explained by the fact that the Conservatives handed the CAPP everything they asked for and the current government hasn’t changed much back, especially with respect to weaker environmental legislation.

That said, if there are factors out of our control when it comes to the price at the pumps, there are others that are potentially within it. The difficulty then becomes convincing any government to take up the task. Consider how no recent government has even considered supporting initiatives to ensure consumers aren’t being ripped off at the pumps. That means there’s zero appetite to make sure collusion isn’t taking place as prices are set or that standardized amounts are being sold.

For more than a decade New Democrats challenged governments to create an ombudsman to advocate for Canadians at the pump. That would help ensure we aren’t being gouged by collusion among fuel companies setting prices artificially high. Another area the ombudsman could help with is determining whether fuel pumps are accurate so that people are receiving the fuel they pay for. As it is, the pumps aren’t inspected and reports indicate they routinely charge people the wrong amount.

With gas prices soaring again there is nothing to protect Canadians from being gouged. A gas price monitoring agency was being established until it was destroyed by the previous government. New Democrats fought for its return and for the creation of an ombudsman so that there is some semblance of balance for consumers in the equation. While the fact that we are still reliant on fossil fuels must be acknowledged as we move towards a green economy, there is room to protect consumers who have little choice but to use these fuels and don’t deserved to be gouged on every front.