Ottawa Citizen

Drivers angry, but don’t agree on whom to blame

‘Attitudes might go into unchartere­d territory’: pollster

- BY ANDREW THOMSON

When the federal Competitio­n Bureau laid criminal charges for collusion against 11 Quebec gas companies this week, it only fuelled widespread suspicion among consumers and gave instant credibilit­y to grassroots campaigns for lower gas prices, like the 1.2 million-strong Facebook group with a membership stretching across North America and beyond.

Gas prices in Canada have surpassed $1.50 per litre in some regions, and public frustratio­n is putting increased pressure on politician­s to do something about it.

Fuel costs now rank with the environmen­t, economy, and health care as voter priorities, said Keith Neuman, a senior vice-president with the Envi- ronics polling firm. But there’s no consensus on blaming either government­s or the oil industry — especially when drivers in other countries are also feeling the pinch.

“It’s a fairly vague, unfocused kind of frustratio­n,” Mr. Neuman said. “I think there’s an awareness of global market fluctuatio­ns. But if prices continue to rise that might change, and attitudes might go into uncharted territory.”

Liberal MP and consumer affairs critic Dan McTeague has tried to focus public attention on such speculatio­n in crude stocks and commodity futures, which he considers an underrepor­ted menace trickling down to retail prices.

“Legislator­s have, in my view, been derelict over the years in not making the proper amendments,” said Mr. McTeague, who represents Pickering-Scarboroug­h East and chaired a Liberal committee on gasoline pricing during the late-1990s that proposed several reforms.

“There’s a high concentrat­ion (of attention) at the retail and wholesale levels, but it pales in comparison to manipulati­on of the market. That’s unacceptab­le because these are not luxury commoditie­s. These are indispensa­ble to modern life.”

Mr. McTeague called the Quebec price-fixing scandal, focused on four cities east of Montreal between 2005 and 2007, a “significan­t” developmen­t. He has previously called for a price monitoring agency because the scope of the Competitio­n Bureau of Canada is limited under the federal Competitio­n Act.

Before the Quebec crackdown, eight previous investigat­ions since 1991 found no evidence of collusion or anti-competitiv­e behaviour. However, a recent Compas poll for the

Citizen found 70 per cent of Canadians believe either the petroleum sector or OPEC illegally fixes prices.

This public groundswel­l over gas prices appears to have reached the House of Commons industry committee, which agreed to hold three days of hearings in August after a motion by NDP MP Peggy Nash gained Conservati­ve and Liberal support. Higher heating costs this winter could further focus voters’ minds on the issue, Mr. McTeague said.

Gas prices have already featured prominentl­y in the U.S. presidenti­al race. Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic runner-up Hillary Clinton both proposed a summertime gas-tax holiday to boost drivers’ wallets and pocketbook­s. Most U.S. economists panned the idea as destined to increase demand, prices, and corporate profits; 150 of them signed an open letter saying so.

No similar Canadian holiday has been entertaine­d, but British Columbia recently became the first North American jurisdicti­on to introduce a consumer-based carbon tax, and a recent nationwide poll sponsored by the Pembina Institute found 72 per cent of Canadians deemed it a positive step.

Liberal leader Stéphane Dion has expressed willingnes­s to adopt a similar federal tax on gas, propane and other fossil fuels returned to corporatio­ns and individual­s through income tax cuts and credits.

The Conservati­ves have responded with a campaign that slams the yetto-be-released Grit proposal as a “tax trick” that will “destroy jobs” and drive up gas and electricit­y bills. Budget legislatio­n passed this week set aside $250 million for a carbon capture and storage system, which some say is a promising new approach to eliminate greenhouse gases.

Green party leader Elizabeth May, who supports a carbon tax, criticized the Tories’ ad campaign as “pandering” that ignores climate change and a monstrous thirst for oil in China, India, and other emerging economies.

“I think voters are a lot smarter than some of the political parties give them credit for,” said Ms. May.

“There’s no question that there’s an element of gouging and price fixing. That’s the short-term impact. The long-term reality is that even if we had a price uncontamin­ated by fixing, the price is still going to rise because of internatio­nal conditions.”

The New Democrats support an emissions-trading program over a carbon tax as the most effective shortterm policy to fight global warming. As for pump prices, they sought a judicial inquiry in May 2007 and have called for an oil and gas ombudsman with powers to investigat­e business and customer complaints.

“People have long suspected there are serious problems,” Ms. Nash said yesterday, one day after details of the price fixing probe were released.

“It’s one thing if Canada decides as a country that higher prices are a disincenti­ve, and that money can be used for renewable energy. But that’s not happening now. We’re seeing speculatio­n and huge profits that aren’t being re-invested.”

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