Saturday May 23, 2015

Should gas pumps have climate change warning labels?

One of Our Horizon's proposed gas pump warning labels.

One of Our Horizon's proposed gas pump warning labels. (ourhorizon.org)

Listen 7:52

Imagine every time you went to the gas station, you'd see a warning sticker on the pump, just like the ones on cigarette packs. Only instead of blackened lungs, there's a picture of an endangered animal or a sick child. The activist group Our Horizon is pushing to get stickers like that on gas pumps across Canada.

Their campaign has had some success. West Vancouver, the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities, and Moncton, have all voted to support the campaign. Guelph, Ontario will vote on it this week.

But there's some resistance to the campaign. Alex Scholten, president of the Canadian Convenience Stores Association, thinks the plan is just another regulatory burden for retailers. We brought him in to debate Our Horizon's executive director Rob Shirkey.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Okay Rob, let me start with you. We all know that climate change is a problem. Why do we need labels on gas pumps?

Rob Shirkey: Well, I think we've got the wrong narrative nationally. We tend to sort of focus on the oil sands and pipelines. That's what media focuses on, activists focus on. The vast majority of emissions, though, actually come from end use. It's you and I burning the product in our vehicles. And in terms of the sector where the majority of emissions come from, it's transportation. So if we're to have any sort of a meaningful impact on this problem called climate change, it's critical that we have a demand side intervention in this sector. 

Alex, do you think that warning labels will change people's behaviour? 

Alex Scholten: Well, first, I support the objective that Rob is suggesting. No one can argue that greenhouse gas emissions are a big concern for us. The difficulty I have, though, is that the proposed approach is really putting our retailers as the sole focus on this issue. It's a complex issue. There are many factors that impact this area and I guess I'm asking why only small business retailers are being asked to do this.

RS: Well, hey, Alex, if you want to start a campaign addressing another area, I've got a $20 donation here encouraging you to do just that.  I think though, you're right. It is a complex problem and there are a lot of drivers that contribute to climate change. I don't think, though, that any one sector or any one player's position can be, "Well there are others that also contribute to this problem so why us?" That's a prescription for non-action. So I think it's a simple intervention. And while I appreciate there's a lot of regulations on on all sorts of businesses, this is really just information. It's just a sticker on a pump. Given the gravity of the problem that is climate change, I really think we should be able to do this. 

Well Alex, let me ask you about that. You said it's a complex problem and as Rob just suggested, it's putting a sticker on the pump. So how is this complex? 

AS: Well. I think if you look at what the association in the United States that's the equivalent of our association is doing, they've created what's called the Fuels Institute. This institute brings together retailers, suppliers, auto makers and environmentalists to talk about the issue and to talk about potential solutions. It's not simply asking retailers alone to be front line and center.

RS: And I applaud that. I think if we're to have viable solutions, though, it's critical that we engage downstream. The simple act of pumping gas is automatic, it's habitual, it's been normalized for generations. So what this does is it de-normalizes the status quo and stimulates broader demand for alternatives. It actually creates the space for a politician to then introduce A, B and C, because we've created a social environment that favours that. You're also then incentivizing business to deliver solutions to meet this shift in market demand. So it's a low cost, scalable intervention that creates this environment. 

AS: Let me step in there, Rob. I've heard the phrase that you've used a couple of times on this proposal, that it's low cost and it shouldn't be a big burden for retailers. The fact is, we have small business retailers across the country in this industry that are scraping by every day. We have counted the number of laws and regulations that they have to comply with on the federal, provincial and municipal level in five municipalities. The total of that was over 860 regulations. To run a gas station, from my personal experience, I needed no fewer than four licenses. Each of those licenses required a registration fee each year. So what you're talking about is just adding another level of regulation. It's death by a thousand pinpricks. 

Alex, have you evaluated how much it might cost the gas station owner to put these stickers on their pumps? 

AS: I have. What Rob has suggested in the resolution that's being promoted to the municipalities is a nozzle talker. It's a plastic cover to a nozzle that allows for an advertising or a message to go on that. Each of those nozzle talkers - if a retailer has not already bought it - costs in a range of about $30 and they have to be replaced on a regular basis. So if you're dealing with a retail gas station that has eight pumps, you're talking about $240. Also, putting a sticker on these things will have to be replaced on a regular basis to keep them from looking quite shoddy.

What do you make of that Rob, that this is going to cost them? 

RS: So for one, I've priced nozzle talkers and purchased them at 15 bucks apiece and I don't think that they need to be replaced as frequently as Alex suggests they do.

AS: I've run gas stations Rob. I can tell you they absolutely do. And I've called my supplier to get a cost here in Fredericton and that's the exact cost I was quoted. 

But Alex, members of your organization are in the business of making money off of selling gas. Are you worried these warning labels will encourage people to buy less gas? 

AS: No. In fact, as I said, I support the objectives that Rob is suggesting here and that is to make Canadians more aware of what they're purchasing and to be more aware of means that they can take to lessen their dependence on fuel. We would gladly help out with that awareness campaign. We are ready, willing and able to meet with Rob and talk with Rob about this. We've never been approached. Instead, he's gone to the municipalities and asked them to mandate legislation to force our members to do this. We'd like to be part of the solution, but we'd like to certainly have an opportunity to talk about how to best do it. We just don't think this is the best way to do it.

How come you haven't talked to them? Have you gone to retailers?

RS: You know what? I will give you my number. Let's begin that conversation. The one thing that's critical though, is the context of this discussion. Our globe right now just hit 400 parts per million of CO2 in our Earth's atmosphere. We have acidified our oceans. This truly is humanity's greatest challenge. If we can't even put a simple sticker on one of the things that dispenses the product, I don't think we're going to address this issue at all. Will that be the story that we tell our grandchildren? "Sorry, we couldn't put a sticker on a pump."

AS: If the suggestion, Rob, is that a sticker will be the magic bullet to solve this entire issue, then I think you're sadly mistaken.