Chris in the Commons: Standing up for fairness at the pumps

May 13th, 2010 - 7:35pm

Ms. Chris Charlton (Hamilton Mountain,NDP): Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Electricity and Gas Inspection Act and the Weights and Measures Act.
When it comes to transportation, we have made monumental advances in technologies. Inventions such as the train, bus and airplane have allowed us to explore the world we live in at relatively modest prices. Industrialization gave us the ability to mass produce public transit vehicles so that everyone could be free to move. But sadly, we are still using primitive and environmentally harmful petroleum fuels to propel most of our modes of transportation.
Both gasoline prices and carbon dioxide emissions are creating a growing transportation problem. As a result, governments are being forced to consider implementing better public transportation initiatives in an effort to reduce the impact of the declining oil economy on both our environment and on financial markets. What we need now from the senior levels of governments is a meaningful funding commitment to research and develop renewable energy sources that will allow municipalities that are already struggling to overcome their congestion and pollution problems.
In an ideal world, cycling and walking would be the preferred option for most Canadians, but unfortunately, urban sprawl and a growing number of people who need to commute for work can not avail themselves of those options. That leaves public transit as the only other sustainable solution, because it is inclusive, economical, mitigates climate change and improves air quality. But progress in this area is moving at a snail’s pace, and in the meantime, people have few options but to stay in their cars.
That means that the price of gas is an enormous factor in the day to day lives of Canadians. Whether you commute to work, travel to visit friends and family across the country, take meals to house-bound seniors, drive your kids to weekend tournaments, or need gas to transport goods for your small business, filling the tank is a constant struggle for millions of Canadians. I’ve been hearing from people from right across my riding of Hamilton Mountain about the hardship that’s caused by the rising price of gas. But what’s worse, they have no confidence that the price that they’re paying at the pump actually reflects what’s happening in the market. They believe that they’re being hosed at the pumps.
Here are just a few of the stories that they’ve shared with me:
Jeff says “It isn’t fair that I can barely pay my bills, and paying for fuel keeps me from paying off debt, while gas companies increase their profits by billions”
Vivian says “I’m retired and finally have some time to visit friends and family. But the car sits in the driveway, because I can’t afford to travel. The gouging oil companies have taken away our way of life.”
Dennis writes: “If we cannot count on the huge oil conglomerates to treat us fairly and not gouge us…the government should step in and do it for them… we are all being gouged big time.”
Mark says: The oil companies are making billions, while driving has become a luxury we can’t afford. Who has the power here – the government or the oil companies?
Mr. Speaker, the price of gas drives up the cost of all commodities. From food to building supplies, manufactured goods to public services, the price of gas is a key cost driver. It affects all of us, whether we drive or not.
Government has a responsibility to ensure Canadian consumers are treated fairly. It’s the job of government to protect Canadians from the dubious business practices of big oil companies, who steal from consumers with faulty gas pumps, and gouge Canadians with price hikes inexplicably tied to weekends and warm weather.
Unfortunately, if predictably, Bill C-14 addresses only one element of that complex problem. It promises to increase fines and penalties for retailers who operate gas pumps that significantly shortchange consumers.
To say that this is a day late and a dollar short is a profound understatement.
It is worth reviewing how we got here; how we got to a place where years after a clear fraud has been exposed, this allegedly ‘tough on crime’ government is only now getting around to proposing completely inadequate, half-baked remedies.
It has been two long and expensive years since the Ottawa Citizen first reported that this government knew that their friends in the oil and gas industry had been ripping off consumers for decades. When the government was finally forced to release the Industry Canada report showing that fully 14,000 gas stations in Canada have at least one inaccurate pump, the New Democrats demanded action. The government said ‘good idea, we’ll get right on that’… and did precisely nothing.
During the last election campaign this government again said to Canadians that they were going to do something about fuel pumps that deliver less fuel than the consumer has paid for, and they indicated that this time they really, really meant it. Yet, they still did nothing.
Finally, with this bill, the government has proposed an increase in fines and penalties for retailers who steal from their customers. But that addresses only part of the problem.
In advancing Bill C-14 government has completely ignored the other critical issues that need urgent attention. In fact, the list of issues that this legislation does not address is more impressive than the legislation itself:

We see no mention of the price gouging policies of big oil that means consumers pay more for gas on long weekends and over the summer.
There is no means of refunding consumers for decades of overpayment resulting from faulty pumps – estimated to amount to millions of dollars a year.
There is not a word about restitution for the taxes government has collected on those overpayments.
And this legislation is silent on the repercussions of privatizing inspection services – a move that essentially leaves the gas industry to police itself.

We’ve seen how well that works.
This government must demonstrate it ‘gets it’, and this bill doesn’t do that. It is so bereft of meaningful solutions to the challenges Canadians face, one cannot help but suspect it’s little more than a token to consumers while big oil is left free to operate much as it has always done.
But then again, this is a government that has chosen to spend $6 billion this year alone on corporate tax cuts to big corporations like the oil and gas industry, so I guess I’m not surprised that this is where their priorities lie. But it is adding insult to injury by punishing hard-working Canadians even further with the much-hated HST, which will increase the price of gas by another 8%.
Time and again, this government shovels tax dollars by the truckload into the hands of profitable corporations while it fails to stand up for consumers.
Canadians want a mechanism to protect them from the excesses of the big oil companies. They want an independent arbiter who can
hear their concerns and complaints, and make decisions in the public interest.
That’s why I introduced Bill C-286, legislation to create an Oil and Gas Ombudsman, who would be charged with providing strong,
effective consumer protection to ensure no big business can swindle, cheat or rip off hardworking families.
An Oil and Gas Ombudsman would be an independent monitoring agency, where Canadians could hold oil and gas companies accountable for their business practices. The Ombudsman’s office would investigate consumer and business complaints relating to price fixing, gouging, and cheating, and provide for remediation. Upon receipt of a complaint, the Ombudsman would then challenge gas companies to respond, and report to the Minister of Industry for action, if he or she remained unsatisfied with the response. Finally, the Ombudsman’s office would report annually to the House of Commons on the activities and findings of the office, so that Canadians would get accountability through their elected representatives.
Mr. Speaker, it’s time to shine a light on how the petroleum industry operates in this country, and to hold them to account on behalf of Canadians. In a country as vast as ours, and as poorly served by public transit, the ability to fill up the tank should not be a luxury. Exorbitant profits, financed by price gouging and tax subsidies must be remedied. I urge the government to do its job; to stand up for Canadian consumers and put Big Oil on notice that we mean business, and we will hold them to account.