Nova Scotia fuel expert says gas shortage will happen again

9 12 2015

Using ‘pure gasoline’ could be one step; linking regulated price to supply could also help

By Jennifer Henderson, CBC News Posted: Sep 09, 2015 6:30 AM AT Last Updated: Sep 09, 2015 6:30 AM AT

During the shortage, many gas stations across the province ran completely out of gas.

During the shortage, many gas stations across the province ran completely out of gas. (CBC)

A man who taught automotive mechanics for nearly 30 years at the Nova Scotia Community College says drivers can expect a repeat of last month’s long lineups for gasoline.

Doug Bethune, who also provides advice on CBC’s Maritime Noon, said closing the Imperial refinery in Dartmouth and relying on shipments of fuel by tanker ship leaves the province vulnerable to anything from storms to sudden price drops that affect supply and demand.

Bethune has been a long-time critic of gasoline that contains ethanol — labelled E-10 at pumps in Nova Scotia — because it is more corrosive and reduces fuel efficiency by three to four per cent compared to regular gasoline.

Despite those reservations, Bethune, who once testified before a Senate hearing on gasoline additives, admits that E-10 — produced by Irving Oil’s Saint John refinery for its large New Brunswick and American markets — may be Nova Scotia’s most practical backup if Exxon, Imperial’s parent company, encounters supply issues again.

“I think all the service stations should be able to convert, to have E-10,” said Bethune.

“Not that I agree with it, but just to be able to supply the general public. The high test — I don’t think it should ever have ethanol in it. In my humble estimation, we should be using pure gasoline.”

Bethune says that would mean building another refinery in Canada or getting off gasoline entirely — which is what the former Gulf Oil tune-up technician says he wants to see in the future.

That would depend on replacing the car’s internal gas combustion engine with something different, like hydrogen or electricity — something still years down the road.

‘Joined at the hip’

No one knows how many of Nova Scotia’s 390 gas outlets have converted at least one pump to supply E-10.

The executive director with the Retail Gasoline Dealers Association of Nova Scotia was unable to provide CBC News with even a ballpark estimate.

Through a reciprocal agreement with Irving Oil, Imperial supplies customers on mainland Nova Scotia with gasoline. New Brunswick supplies their own customers.

But when Imperial couldn’t meet the demand 10 days ago, Irving trucks came from Saint John to fill up Irving stations in Nova Scotia and high-volume Wilson Fuels outlets in metro Halifax.

Even they eventually ran dry as a result of demand because of a nine-cent-a-litre price drop during the last week of August.

The Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board regulates the price of gasoline but is hands off when it comes to supply.

That’s something the vice-president of Wilson Fuels thinks the province can no longer afford to ignore. Dave Collins says it must be addressed in the independent, third-party review that Emergency Management Minister Zach Churchill is expected to announce this week.

“When you go to set price, no one is looking at what the state of supply is here and that’s been going on for some time and I think they finally got caught,” said Collins.

“The two are joined at the hip whether people want to believe that or not. As a retailer, we want them to look at it. If you do nothing, it will happen again.”

Winter storage

One potential solution to prevent future shortages of gasoline and furnace oil, which also arrives by tanker ship at Dartmouth’s Imperial dock, is to set up some form of storage. The chemistry of today’s gasoline means it has only a two to three-month shelf life, while home heating oil can be stored up to a year.

Inventories for furnace oil are generally deeper than for gasoline, but there is no requirement or regulation on suppliers to keep a minimum amount of furnace oil in storage through the hard winter months.

A spokesman for Imperial says the company is waiting to see what the provincial review recommends.

“No one is paying them to do it so it’s not happening,” said Collins.

“I guess the next question is, do we as a province want to pay for that? We are all going to pay because if you charge a business a cost, it gets passed along.”

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