Questions are being raised as to why the federal government stopped issuing a bi-weekly report on gas prices, just as that report was showing a large spike in profits made by refiners.
The Fuel Focus Report from Natural Resources Canada had been issued every two weeks for years until the series stopped with the July 24 issue, shortly before Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a federal election in early August.
Natural Resources Canada says they halted this report during the 2011 election as well. But other data sets related to oil and gas continue to be published through the election cycle.
The last published Fuel Focus Report found that, out of an average gas price (at that time) of $1.22 per litre, refiners were taking 28.6 cents per litre. That’s 10 cents more than a year earlier.
West Texas oil prices, the benchmark for North American oil, had fallen by half over the previous year (to around US$50, from around US$102) but gas prices were down just 11 per cent from a year earlier, the report found.
Gas refiners' profit margins can be seen shooting up in this chart from the July 24, 2015 edition of NRCan's Fuel Focus Report. The bi-weekly report was discontinued after this issue, and just before the launch of the federal election campaign.
In an email to HuffPost, a Natural Resources Canada spokesperson said the data removal is temporary. All the missing reports "will be posted online retroactively following the election. This is consistent with our practice in the 2011 election."
As a rule, government-issued data does not stop during elections. Statistics Canada will continue to publish GDP, unemployment and inflation figures, among other things, during the election period.
Commenters online and in the media see election-time politics, and the hand of the Harper government, behind the decision to remove that data set.
“Big Oil is taking advantage of Canadians at the pumps,” wrote the National Observer, which first reported on the cancellation of the fuels report. “The Harper government seems worried voters might figure it out.”
Neil Macdonald at the CBC sees it as another symptom of the “muzzling” of Canadian government researchers under Conservative rule.
The current government seems to consider information a political tool, easily weaponized, and has ordered bureaucrats largely to refrain from communication with the general public they are supposed to serve. With particular emphasis, of course, on the media.
Naturally, that can become creeping self-censorship, as a matter of career self-interest.
How else to explain the suppression, at the outset of this election, of Natural Resources Canada's Fuel Focus Report?
If there’s good news to be found here, it’s that since the report was discontinued, gas prices have fallen significantly. According to GasBuddy.com, the national average was $1.04 as of Friday afternoon, down 12 cents from last month and down 23 cents from a year earlier.
The affiliated gas price forecast site TomorrowsGasPriceToday.com says refiners are going to have to give back some of those fat profit margins as the winter driving season comes along.
“Canadian refiners are going to have to pass on the lower cost of producing winter blended gasoline sooner or later as they are now charging 8.5 cents a litre above the world benchmark,” TGPT said.