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Nova Scotia Showdown

Independent retailers want gas price regulation

HALIFAX, N.S. -- Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm has assured desperate independent gasoline dealers, who say they are being driven out of business by low margins, that he is committed to some form of regulated market, reported the Canadian Press.

But following a meeting Wednesday night with half-a-dozen station owners, the premier demanded the opposition parties back his approach to slowing the rollercoaster-like peaks and dips of fuel prices. A government bill that sets up the legal framework for price regulation has been stalled before a legislature committee for a year.[image-nocss]

The Opposition New Democrats introduced their own detailed bill Wednesday, hoping to spur the Conservative government into action. "We want to get our bill passed," Hamm said. When asked whether he was prepared to make any changes to the legislation, the premier said, "No. We want it to go through unamended."

Once the bill, which gives the cabinet the authority to set up a regulated system, is passed, Hamm said he would sit down with the independent station owners and figure out what specific regulations are needed. "We're not going to get into the details now," he said. "We're going to have to work those out with the dealers."

But New Democrats quickly rejected the premier's call, saying it is the lack of detail that scares them. "This is stupid," said NDP consumer critic Frank Corbett. "This does not give the protection that consumers want or these retailers want. Let's see this thing. What is [the premier] afraid of? Allowing Nova Scotians, retailers and consumers to see everything up front?"

The uncompromising stands left many of the dozens of independent retailers, who crowded the halls of the legislature Wednesday, feeling frustrated and helpless. "All they have to do is sit down, but nobody wants to say anything," said Guy Surette, a station owner from Tusket, N.S.

Surette met the premier on the stairs in the foyer of Province House and warned him that local Conservativeand agriculture ministerChris D'Entremont's seat would be in jeopardy if something was not done. "We're just scraping by," said Surette. "We've talked to these people. Come on, do something for the little guy. Do something for all Nova Scotians."

While the NDP were briefing the media on their proposed legislation, Whycocomagh, N.S., station owner Denny Ehler, seized a local TV reporter's microphone and addressed the news conference, demanding the NDP keep the legislature open until a regulatory deal is worked out. His business is losing about $15,000 a month and has been sustained through bank loans, his pension and his wife's pension. "That's where we put our pension checks right now," said Ehler. "We don't feel like going in and saying to 11 [employees], 'You're finished.' So we're trying to keep it going. But we can't keep it going under these conditions."

Most independent station owners say they are earning about 2.5 to three cents for every liter of gasoline they sell. The breakeven point is considered five cents a liter, depending upon the market. So far this year, 28 stations have closed, most of them in the rural part of the province. As many as 100 outlets could also be boarded up by the end of 2005, said Graham Conrad, executive director of the Retail Gasoline Association of Nova Scotia. He said they have been biding their time, talking with the Conservatives, hoping the government would take action during the spring session of the legislature. Out of frustration, he backed the NDP bill, he said.

The minister in charge of consumer affairs, Barry Barnet, hinted that he will approach the third-party Liberals on Thursday to get their support to move the government's bill forward. "Do I have a formal dance partner? Not yet," said Barnet. "Am I looking for one? Yes."

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