Premier John Horgan’s NDP government is going full tilt against oil companies, passing legislation to require companies to hand over import, pricing and supply data to the B.C. Utilities Commission.
The legislation is eerily similar to a move to regulate fuel prices more than 80 years ago by Liberal premier Duff Pattullo.
While Horgan may be unfamiliar with that move in the depths of the Great 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 attributed 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 party 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 more than $1.70 per litre in Vancouver) 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 prices there remain stubbornly high. This may at least partially due to reduced competition and the fact two ferry rides are needed for fuel to be delivered to the community.
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), but the reality is most people require gasoline or diesel fuel to power their vehicles.
Horgan’s government may be on to something, but it should also 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 Canada’s largest oil refinery is Irving Oil in Saint John.
Mixing oil and politics can become messy.
Frank Bucholtz is a columnist and former editor with Black Press.