05/26/2015 09:20 EDT | Updated 05/26/2015 09:59 EDT

Gas Retailers Line Up Against Climate-Change Warning Labels On Pumps

The idea of placing climate change warning labels on gas pumps is beginning to pick up steam, with several Canadian city councils moving forward with motions to study the proposal, but it’s being met with stiff resistance from gas retailers.

Over the past few months, cities from West Vancouver to Guelph, Ont., to Moncton, N.B., have passed resolutions supporting the idea of warning labels on gas pumps. Already, questions have come up over whether cities have the right to mandate these labels, and observers are speculating about the possibility of lawsuits.

A proposed climate-change warning label for gas pumps, produced by activist group Our Horizon.

And while industry groups say they support the goal of combatting climate change, they are aggressively moving to protect gasoline’s image, especially from being linked to another product that has been slapped with warning labels — tobacco.

In a letter to Moncton Mayor George LeBlanc, the Atlantic Convenience Stores Association said it found it “disturbing” that gasoline is being equated with smoking.

“Until some viable alternative energy is developed, fossil fuels will be a critical economic and societal necessity. The same cannot be said for tobacco products,” the letter read.

Gas retailers are also wondering why — in their view — they’ve been singled out for attention.

“Perhaps every home, business and public institution consuming energy linked to fossil fuels for heat, power or air conditioning … should be required to have a climate-change warning label on the front door,” a spokesman for the Canadian Convenience Stores Association (CCSA) told the National Post.

But for Rob Shirkey, a former Toronto lawyer, occasional Huffington Post blogger and founder of the Canadian campaign for labels on gas pumps, the target isn’t gas retailers — it’s consumers.

"A lot of activists will vilify industry and say it's a problem with the oilsands, it's a problem with pipelines," Shirkey, who founded the campaign group Our Horizon in 2013, recently told Vice magazine.

"My thinking is, though, that the only reason any of that exists is because I use the product [and] there's a market for it. So if you actually want to address this issue, you have to address the demand side of the equation."

While he concedes a warning label alone won’t solve the problem, Shirkey points to studies showing that tobacco warning labels, especially when accompanied by images, have had an impact in reducing smoking rates.

The questions remains whether municipalities have the power to “address the demand side of the equation” through warning labels.

For gas retail groups, it’s also a question of cost. In an interview with CBC, CCSA president Alex Scholten estimated it would cost gas retailers about $30 each for the nozzle sleeves needed to put a message on a gas pump.

“So if you're dealing with a retail gas station that has eight pumps, you're talking about $240,” he said.

Shirkey sees that as a minor cost.

“It’s just a sticker. It’s low-cost. It’s compelling,” he told the Post. “It’s the world’s lowest cost to climate-change intervention.”

But the CCSA has already suggested gas pump warnings could be the target of a lawsuit if cities go ahead with it.

In the U.S., where Berkeley, Calif., is one of a handful of cities moving forward with climate change warning labels, the city has acknowledged it could face a lawsuit from the Western States Petroleum Association, or other groups. That group has called gas pump labels “the type of forced speech that the United States Supreme Court has ruled is absolutely unconstitutional."

In Canada, cities will likely look for legal cover by pushing higher levels of government to create legislation allowing the labels.

“What we really need to do is get it mandated by the province and federal government,” said Michael Smith, mayor of the city of West Vancouver, which has passed a motion to bring the labels idea to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

“The issue is, I don’t think we really have the legal right to insist that west Vancouver service stations put those labels on,” Smith told the Post.

But Smith himself demonstrates that, at least on some scale, the idea is likely to go forward. The owner of several commercial car lots, he hopes to have warning labels on his own gas pumps by summer, the Post reports.

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