Mr. Speaker, it is my great pleasure today to speak to Bill C-454, which was introduced by the Bloc Québécois member for Montcalm. First, I would like to congratulate my colleague on his excellent work and on this initiative to bring this important issue back to the House of Commons. It has not lost its relevance over the past few years with the price of gas at the pump now hovering around $1.15.
Bill C-454 is being read for the first time in Parliament, but I want to remind some of my colleagues from other parties that it is inspired in large part by Bill C-19, which the Liberals tabled shortly before the 2005-06 elections, and which the Conservatives decided not to reintroduce. Of course, it has been rewritten and improved, but it is, in essence, the same. If I were to provide a broad outline of this bill, I would summarize it by saying that its purpose is to strengthen the Competition Act.
First, it gives the Competition Bureau the power to conduct its own inquiries into the oil industry. Currently, the bureau can do no more than undertake general studies that have no consequences.
In the course of conducting such inquiries, it can summon and protect witnesses. If it could not do so, it would very likely never be able to prove anti-competitive practices.
Lastly, when companies want to enter into agreements with their competitors, they will have to prove that these agreements are in the public interest. The bill also significantly raises the amount of fines, from $10 million to $25 million.
That said, exactly what need is this bill trying to meet?
Prices of petroleum products are rising steadily, and we want Quebeckers to have a way of finding out why this is happening, who is benefiting and, most importantly, whether this is reasonable.
The first major problem that is affecting everyone to different degrees is the rising price of crude oil. This is having a direct impact on the price per barrel, which is fluctuating today between US$100 and US$110 and has increased by 230% since early 2004.
This in turn is affecting the price of heating oil, which is on the rise. It has averaged about 90¢ since early 2007 and has gone up by more than 50% in the past two years. I want to remind the House that according to Statistics Canada, approximately 500,000 Quebec households in Quebec still heat with oil or another liquid fuel.
The increase in the price of crude oil is also driving up the price of gas, which, understandably, has raised the public's ire for the past several years.
For a number of years, in fact, old records have fallen repeatedly as the price of regular gas has regularly reached new highs. Fluctuations aside, the price of gas in Quebec is going up steadily; it was 71.3¢ in May 2002, 94.4¢ in May 2004 and $1.10 in May 2007. Since the beginning of the year it has fluctuated between $1.09 and $1.18.
At the same time, oil companies have posted record sales for a number of years. But that is not all. Oil companies' net profits have also skyrocketed in recent years. The oil industry's net profits rose from $17.6 billion in 2003 to $20.2 billion in 2004 and $35 billion in 2006, a 100% increase.
What is more, with respect to the increase in costs, if we compare the price of regular gas in Quebec today with the price in 2004, we find that the retailer mark-up has remained stable, taxes have remained stable and even gone down in proportion to the price of a litre of gas, and the increase in the price of crude oil accounts in part for the increases.
But lately, the constant fluctuations in gas prices cannot be explained by crude oil prices; they are attributable to the obscene profits made by the refineries.
Is this situation intentional? We do not know, because the Competition Bureau does not have the tools it needs to conduct a serious and complete investigation. But one thing is for sure: the structure of the oil industry encourages spikes in gas prices, and is conducive to abuse. That is why the industry must be monitored, hence Bill C-454.
As members know, I am the Bloc's natural resources critic, and it is part of my duties to learn about the oil industry. That is precisely what the Standing Committee on Natural Resources did for several months last year, as part of an important study on the oil sands industry. Over the course of about 30 meetings, we heard from some 100 witnesses, many of whom came from the oil industry.
I listened to and questioned these witnesses carefully, and although our conclusions can be found in the committee's report, I would like to share how these testimonies touched me personally.
When I was listening to these professional lobbyists, I was deeply struck by the excesses of the industry, with its echoes of the gold rush.
People in the oil industry came to talk to us, they explained the challenges, confidently predicted the future, easily came up with rational solutions to complex problems in their heads, but were so detached from the effects caused by their industry, that it literally took my breath away.
As everyone also knows, I am a social worker by training, and if I wanted to draw a parallel with a type of clientele, I would say we are dealing with an industry that has a very hard time regarding itself objectively or engaging in any self-criticism, and above all, we are dealing with an industry for whom the end justifies the means and that is always right. It has a bit of a superiority complex, which places it above other things and makes it prone to over-ambition and exaggeration, often in a shameless manner.
In the case of the petroleum industry, the excessiveness of the financial stakes—we are still talking about billions of dollars—and the current importance of their products, which are practically essential to the functioning of society, create this cavalier attitude that often lacks any moral or ethical sensibility. I could give so many examples that I could easily keep the House busy until tomorrow, but let us look at just one, more recent and very typical example.
On Monday, March 10, the Minister of the Environment presented his solutions for climate change problems—a plan whose flabbiness will surely go down in history. One of his proposals is carbon capture and storage by the oil industry. Speaking through a task force that delivered a study to Natural Resources Canada, the oil industry responded that it refuses to invest great sums of money in this technology because of the uncertainty surrounding its large-scale commercialization.
And as if that were not enough, the task force, composed of one academic and four industry representatives, went even further. Try to listen to this without being too surprised:
...it is a very difficult proposition for individual private sector players to commit additional hundreds of millions of dollars...to achieve a public good...for which it may not be compensated with an adequate (or any) return on investment.
In any context that statement would be unacceptable, but in the current climate change crisis, it is totally irresponsible and insulting. This method would force private companies to contain their pollution.
The members of this task force act as if they are doing us a favour. They are completely disconnected from reality, so much so that they add even more. As François Cardinal reported in La Presse on March 11, the report recommends that the federal government allocate $2 billion immediately and that both levels of government provide “stable financial incentives”.
I would like to remind hon. members that the oil industry made $35 billion in profits in 2006. And these people are talking about the impossibility of investing in the public good unless profit is involved?
I also want to point out that in addition to $66 billion in direct subsidies from the federal government between 1970 and 1999, this industry is currently benefiting, through accelerated capital cost allowance, from tax measures such as former Bill C-48, under the Liberals in 2003, and from tax cuts announced by the Conservatives in the economic statement of November 2007 of up to $1.5 billion annually.
In the coming year alone, the oil industry will receive a $1.18 billion gift. In total, for the 2008-13 period, roughly $7.8 billion will go into the pockets of the oil companies through various measures implemented by both the Conservatives and the Liberals.
Yesterday I received a phone call from a constituent from Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert, who said that her heating costs have increased by 50% in two years. She thought that was totally unacceptable.
Bill C-454 is needed to help people like that and to supervise the oil industry more carefully. We hope the bill will be adopted.