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By Jon Thompson
Kenora-Rainy River MPP Sarah Campbell has introduced her first-ever Private Member’s Bill, which will put an end to private energy retail in Ontario.
Bill 132, the Energy Consumer Protection Amendment Act, passed two readings last week and will be sent to committee for modifications before it returns to the Legislature to face its final vote.
While the bill allows for active energy retail contracts to expire, it forbids existing contracts to be extended or new contracts to be signed, grandfathering those companies out of existence.
“There are a lot of top priorities I have but this is something I really wanted to follow through with,” Campbell said. “I feel it’s something that’s preventable. I see these people across the riding, stuck in these really awful jams and I’ve tried really hard to do everything I could to raise awareness and let people know what their rights are but people can find themselves victims of this situation for a number of reasons: some people don’t know; You’re not able to reach everybody; other people fall victim to the high pressure sales tactics being deployed on the doorstep.”
In 2002, the Progressive Conservative Party under Mike Harris opened the door for the private retailers as a market solution to the potential instability of energy costs in a wider energy deregulation strategy. The public backlash to those plans caused that government to back away from full deregulation but the market for retailers had already been launched.
Two years later, the Dalton McGuinty Liberals introduced the Regulated Price Plan, an interventionist solution that provided predictability by locking in energy costs. When eliminating price fluctuation was eliminated, the companies who had bought energy in blocks to sell to consumers were left without a competitive market. In the years that followed complaints against retailers made up between 70 and 90 per cent of concerns expressed to the Ontario Energy Board. Consumers found what appeared to be reduced energy costs actually excluded hidden fees, which resulted in bills between 35 and 65 per cent higher than those from local distribution utilities, according to a 2011 Auditor General report.
In a reformist effort to make energy retailers more transparent, the Energy Consumer Protection Act of 2010 forced companies to show comparative costs. To this day, however the top complaints the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) lists are the cancellation charges, misrepresentation of identity and cancellation requests not being processed, all in relation to private retailers.
“With regulatory oversight that has been expanded for the OEB, comes a cost. They’re doing all this other work so it costs us about $260 million annually for them to enforce this stuff and that leads to problems for the consumer,” Campbell said. “It’s extremely difficult to monitor on the doorstep and it led me to believe some people were still being taken advantage of, so what we needed to do was crack down on the sale of fixed-rate electricity contracts and ban them with respect to residential customers.”
Considering the consumer cost, the regulatory cost and the legislation that has rendered private retailers redundant, Campbell felt taking the bold step of phasing them out would be the best policy.
I feel like the best way to protect people is to take it one step further and make sure those electricity retailers aren’t able to take advantage of people,” she said.
Private Member’s Bills seldom become law. The PCs block-voted against Cambell’s bill, the NDP block-voted to support it and the governing Liberals were split, allowing it to pass.