Vancouver Island gas retailer wants price regulation

NANAIMO — A major Vancouver Island gasoline retailer is calling for price controls, saying it would help consumers and protect small mom-and-pop operators.

Gasoline prices have fluctuated wildly in recent weeks, causing drivers to wonder who’s behind crazy prices that go up more than a dime one day, only to fall the next.

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Wayne Procter owns 23 Island filling stations, including nine in Nanaimo. He blames big-box retailers for a price war he says will hurt consumers and operators in the absence of government intervention.

Gasoline prices are regulated in every province east of Ontario.

Recent price swings in Nanaimo are ripples in a larger price war underway in Courtenay, Duncan and Victoria, Procter said.

“In Courtenay, you’ve got [big-box stores] fighting to the bottom,” Procter said. “It goes lower and lower, then it shoots up.”

Nanaimo drivers were recently shocked by price increases of 10 cents or more in a single day, followed by drops of a nickel or more, and even more fluctuating prices.

Gas bar operators are taking a lot of heat from consumers, but it’s not deserved, Procter said.

“We were selling gas the last couple weeks at cost or just above cost. We decided we’ve got to make a little money. ... But you don’t want to be the first guy to put it up, because you don’t want to be the bad guy.”

Procter said big-box retailers with deep pockets make smaller operators the bad guys, and the way around that would be price controls.

“Independents are getting really squeezed,” he said. “I think we should be pushing for regulated prices, like in Nova Scotia. If they get set, imagine: There's none of this price fluctuation and then you can’t have the big guys pick on the small guys.”

The price war has caused Mid-Island Co-op to revise its prices, sometimes daily, at its 14 gas bars from Saltspring Island to Qualicum Beach.

“We’re at the whim and the whimsy of the market,” said Ian Anderson, Co-op general manager. “Last week, we had a price change of 10 cents in a single day. I know people think there is a Machiavellian scheme out there. But really, there’s not.”

Retailers dislike price instability, too, but “I don’t know if government regulation is the right solution to that,” Anderson said.

Some would say price regulation runs counter to free-market economics, but every province east of Ontario uses that authority to control price volatility.

Price control boards exist in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, “and I believe it works quite well,” Procter said.

Provinces regulate gas prices to reduce price volatility to protect small independent retailers, according to a statement by the Consumers Council of Canada.

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