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From 40 years ago: Would gas rationing come to Canada?

A drop in supplies from Iran and refineries without capacity to spare added up to not enough gas for everyone in California, and it looked like it might get worse.

Motorists in California lined up for hours to fill up, and Canadians hoped it wouldn't spread north

Gas supplies dwindle in the U.S. due to an international dispute 1:46

A drop in supplies from Iran and refineries without capacity to spare added up to not enough gas for everyone in California, and it looked like it might get worse.

On May 9, 1979, the first day of rationing by the state came into effect.

"The first day of gas rationing in California forced 10 million motorists to line up for hours on end as they tried to fill up their tanks on the allotted day," said Knowlton Nash, host of CBC's The National.

That sight, said reporter Sheldon Turcott, had Canadians worried about rationing at home.

"For a number of reasons, we are not faced with gas rationing at this time," said Turcott, citing a boost in Western crude production and uninterrupted deliveries of oil imports.

"[The oil companies] are afraid that if they denied gas to Americans, it would destroy our tourist trade," reporter Sheldon Turcott said.  (The National/CBC Archives)

But in the U.S., refineries couldn't meet the demand for oil and were under orders to build up their heating supplies for the next winter.

"This, and the earlier drop in oil shipments from Iran, has caused the American gasoline shortage," added Turcott.

The U.S. Senate had also approved a national emergency rationing plan proposed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which would allow rationing to spread beyond California.

But in Canada, the oil companies said there would be "no shortage" of gasoline for the coming summer or the winter to follow.

Turcott warned that Canada could face a problem if rationing spread later in the year, sending Americans across the border to tank up. 

The oil companies hadn't decided what they might do if that happened.

"They're afraid that if they denied gas to Americans, it would destroy our tourist trade," Turcott said.

Spoiler alert: it happened

Lineups are long in Niagara Falls, and not because tourists want to see the sights. 1:57

Less than two months later, Turcott was back on the gas beat.

"The heart of Niagara Falls is usually one long traffic jam at this time of year," he said in a report on July 3, 1979.

"Sales are way up," said a Niagara Falls gas station owner. (The National/CBC Archives)

But the lineups weren't on the main drag anymore — they were at the city's gas stations.

"We're up about 40 per cent over last year," said a local gas station owner. "Since the gas crisis in the States."

The U.S. shortage may have been good for Canadian dealers, but local customers had reason to grumble.

"I think we should ... set up a separate line for Americans," said a driver waiting in a queue. "I only have an hour for lunch, I'm not going to sit around the corner waiting for my gas. We're supposed to have plenty of it."

Turcott said border crossings were up sharply, but tourist traffic was down.

"Service station operators say that if the shortage continues in the United States, they see a tight market developing for Canadian motorists."