New Brunswick

Irving Oil wins right to keep its price hike evidence private

Opponents of Irving Oil's request to increase petroleum wholesale margins in New Brunswick are vowing to keep up their fight against the application despite a ruling Monday denying them access to most of the evidence the case is based upon. 

EUB rules groups fighting the application for petroleum price increases cannot view critical material

Irving Oil lawyer Len Hoyt successfully argued there is no public benefit to letting groups opposed to the company's application see its evidence. (CBC)

Opponents of Irving Oil's request to increase petroleum wholesale margins in New Brunswick are vowing to keep up their fight against the application despite a ruling Monday denying them access to most of the evidence the case is based upon. 

"We're going to continue to carry on," said Abram Lutes.

Lutes is with the Common Front for Social Justice, one of five community and union groups registered to take part in the hearing into petroleum margins in front of the Energy and Utilities Board that argued for the right to see all the evidence presented.   

"It will be very difficult to argue the evidence itself when a lot of that substantial information is being withheld," said Lutes, after the ruling denying access was released    

"It begs the question why have interveners in the first place?"

Much of Irving Oil's evidence supporting an increase in petroleum margins is redacted to protect company information. The EUB ruled Monday that is reasonable. (Submitted by Irving Oil)

Irving Oil's marketing and commercial divisions have applied for a 62.8 per cent (4.09 cent per litre) increase in the allowed wholesale margin for motor fuels, including diesel and gasoline and a 54.9 per cent (3.02 cent per litre) increase in the margin for furnace oil.  

It is also asking that prior to a full hearing on that request in late March or early April,  85 per cent of the requested increase on motor fuels (3.5 cents) and 99 per cent of the increase on furnace oil (3.0 cents) be granted immediately because of intense financial pressures it says have arisen in the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abram Lutes is with the New Brunswick Common Front for Social Justice and says the group will continue to fight Irving Oil's application to raise petroleum wholesale prices despite not being allowed to see the evidence. (CBC)

The increases are substantially more than the 11 per cent growth in inflation that has occurred since the margins last changed in March 2013, but the company said explaining why will involve sharing commercially sensitive information that it needs to protect from competitors.

In its decision the board said Irving Oil is entitled to keep internal company information it submits to bolster its case for higher prices off the public record.  

Acting board chair Francois Beaulieu said Irving Oil's evidence met the definition of what constitutes confidential information.  That requires the board to protect it and the parties opposed to the application will not be allowed to view it. 

Acting EUB chairman Francois Beaulieu delivered the ruling that Irving Oil met the requirement to keep evidence confidential. (CBC)

Instead, the evidence will be available in its entirety to the board, its professional staff and hired expert as well as to public intervener Heather Black and any expert she retains.  

He said that will ensure the company's evidence is properly "tested" and should provide enough scrutiny to ensure the public interest is served.

In previous hearings on other matters the board has sometimes allowed multiple interveners to view confidential information if they sign non disclosure agreements, but Irving Oil made it clear last week it was also opposed to that arrangement.

"We do have a concern with that, and the only party that we are prepared to provide it to is the Public Intervener in addition to the Board," said Irving Oil's lawyer Len Hoyt on Friday.

Hafsah Mohammad, left, is with the Moncton community group Grassroots NB and is disappointed by the ruling evidence in Irving Oil's application to raise margins will not be widely shared. (Shane Magee/CBC)

Hafsah Mohammad represents Garassroots NB and was disappointed with the board's decision but said her group would continue to fight the application.

"Yes, absolutely," she said.

"We don't have access to all evidence and we will preface our arguments with that reality."

The board will meet Thursday to hear Irving Oil's request for an interim increase in allowed wholesale charges to cope with immediate financial pressures it says cannot wait for the full hearing in two months.

About the Author

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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