Motorists were left grumbling after a sudden jump in gasoline prices last week, but whether that spike or others has drawn the attention of federal regulators is a state secret.
Officials at the Competition Bureau denied in full an access to information request filed by the Herald seeking copies of complaints and reports from investigations into alleged price-fixing in the region over the past four years.
What came back was a document that appears to show the existence of 75 pages, each of which was withheld under the Competition Act.
“By law, all investigations are conducted confidentially and the bureau is required to treat complaints confidentially. As such, I cannot confirm whether or not the bureau has received any complaints in this area, or discuss the nature or quantity of any such complaints,” spokesman Greg Scott said in a statement.
“For the same reason, I cannot confirm whether or not the bureau has any ongoing investigations on this subject.”
Okanagan-Coquihalla MP Dan Albas, who has forwarded concerns to the bureau about price-fixing on behalf of constituents, said the law is clear and not even he can pry information from the agency.
“My understanding is that any investigation is strictly confidential, so no information or updates have been shared with myself or my office as to whether there is any investigation current or ongoing,” he said.
“There’s very good reasons for this. The last thing people want is to either compromise someone’s privacy – for example, the constituents that shared their concerns with me – and then also of course there has be independent verification, and that’s why these investigations go on.”
Albas said, though, that his concerns about alleged price-fixing persist and relate to difficulties ascertaining who owns what gas stations.
“Numbered companies may have different shareholders, however, those shareholders may be related in other undisclosed ways,” he explained.
“These are some of the concerns that I have, however, concerns need to be investigated and of course confirmed, and that’s best done through an independent office like the Competition Bureau. I’m hopeful that’s what’s occurring.”
Dan McTeague, a senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com, said what appears to the average consumer to be price-fixing likely stems from the dwindling number of gasoline refineries that ship product to a small group of wholesalers that supply competing stations.
“That’s led to lock-step pricing and what appears to be people gathering in the dark of night to make a deal on price,” he said, but “much of the price is already decided before it even hits the gas station.”
McTeague, who studied the issue when he was a backbench Liberal MP in the 1990s, said the average retail margin on gasoline is five to seven cents, which doesn’t leave a lot of room to manipulate prices.
“Has the Competition Bureau found evidence of collusion and conspiracy? Yes. Does it exist? Perhaps it does, but I hope it doesn’t,” he said.
That evidence was found in recent years in Quebec, where 33 individuals from seven companies were fined a total of $3 million and received cumulative jail sentences of 54 months, and in Ontario, where four companies were fined $2.5 million, according to the Competition Bureau.
A spokesman for Chevron, which has two outlets in Penticton, claims that what appears to be price-fixing is actually evidence to the contrary.
“Prices are very visible on the street and a competitor who is priced higher will attract significantly less business,” Brent Tippen said in a statement.
“What appears at first blush to consumers to be less competitive is actually an indication of a very competitive market.”