Premier John Horgan’s NDP government is going full tilt against oil companies, bringing in a bill last week to require companies to hand over import, pricing and supply data to the B.C. Utilities Commission.
The proposed legislation is eerily similar to a move to regulate fuel prices more than 80 years ago by Horgan’s predecessor, Liberal Premier Duff Pattullo. While Horgan may be unfamiliar with that move in the depths of the Depression, it is worthwhile noting that Pattullo’s bid to regulate retail and wholesale fuel prices ended very badly for him.
His two-term government failed to win a majority government in the next election in 1941. His own party deposed him so a coalition government of Liberals and Conservatives could take over under former finance minister, John Hart. Pattullo put down the loss at least partially to the battle with big oil, writing to a friend (as quoted in Martin Robin’s Pillars of Profit) “This antagonized some very powerful interests. From that day to this, a constant campaign has been waged against me personally.”
The prime motivation for this latter-day assault on oil companies is the successful campaign the NDP mounted in the 2017 election to make life more affordable for British Columbians. Promises to end Medical Service Plan premiums (the final bills are now in the mail) and get rid of tolls on two bridges in the Lower Mainland were enough to give the NDP extra seats in Surrey, Delta, Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows. It’s having more challenges controlling higher ICBC premiums, caused by the “raging dumpster fire” that shows no sign of easing up.
The shockingly high price of gas in the spring months (it jumped to over $1.70 per litre) promoted Horgan to ask the B.C. Utilities Commission to investigate. The commission could find no rational explanation for about 10 to 13 cents of the per litre price – leading to the latest legislation.
Of course, there are many factors in B.C.’s high gas prices. Taxes are one – in particular the carbon tax (which the NDP has raised) and the TransLink fuel tax in the Metro Vancouver region. Another factor is transportation – there are just two small oil refineries in B.C., one in Burnaby and one in Prince George, so most fuel sold here is refined in Edmonton or Washington state.
Fuel prices seem to remain stubbornly high in many places, particularly more remote areas. Recently, Squamish residents mounted a protest against high prices in their community, which is just outside Metro Vancouver. Powell River residents also say that prices there remain stubbornly high. This may at least partially due to reduced competition and the fact that two ferry rides are needed for fuel to be delivered there.
The government wants to move rapidly to carbon-free transportation (it has a goal of banning the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2040), the reality is most people require gasoline or diesel fuel to power their vehicles. Horgan’s government may be on to something – but they also should consider that fuel prices in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, which regulate gas prices, are sometimes among the highest in Canada. This is despite the fact that Canada’s largest oil refinery is Irving Oil in Saint John, New Brunswick.
Mixing oil and politics can become messy.
Frank Bucholtz is a columnist and former editor with Black Press Media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org