Attitudes toward energy consumption may have hit a tipping point after a year and half of constant worry about rising oil prices crested with the past month's hurricane-driven spike and last week's spasm of gasoline panic. “We've started to see indications that the demand side of behaviour is changing,” says Steve Kelly, with Calgary energy consultancy Purvin & Gertz. And Bart Melek, senior economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns, predicts that “when all the data comes out after these spikes, I think you will notice, not a huge massive decline, but on the margins some decline in consumption, where people were very conscious of the price and would economize.” He added: “I know in my case, I used the small car rather than the large vehicle. And you multiply that by 140 million households in North America, this can add up... High prices do force people to think about their consumption.” Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford points to a shift toward smaller vehicles. Sales of large sport utility vehicles are down 15% this year while subcompact cars are up 8%. “It's not dramatic yet, but certainly the sales numbers this year show that the gas price does matter in buying decisions - why wouldn't it?” Stanford said.
But auto industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers says Canadians have limited scope to cut their gasoline consumption, because “most consumers in the automotive sector are already there, in terms of fuel efficiency, or they've got no choice in terms of the kind of vehicle they drive.” About 45% already own relatively small and fuel-efficient cars, he said. Thirty per cent are in mid-size family vehicles “primarily because they need that size of vehicle,” and 15% of the market is commercial vehicles - “they need the horsepower” - he said. “There's a relatively small band of about 10% of consumers that own large luxury cars that are less fuel-efficient.” He notes that the largest SUVs were bought by only 10,000 Canadians last year, in a market of more than 1.5 million cars and light trucks. That compares with sales of 1.1M behemoth SUVs in the US, “the most absolutely irresponsible country in the world when it comes to fuel efficiency and vehicle ownership and the environment,” DesRosiers said. “A very small percentage of consumers in Canada drive a gas-guzzler.”
The Toronto Transit Commission, meanwhile, has observed no ridership surge attributable to gasoline prices. Spokeswoman Marilyn Bolton said recent traffic levels on the country's biggest urban transit system have been within normal variations. On the environmentalist side, “You wouldn't be surprised to find out that an environmental group like Greenpeace sees a positive note in higher oil prices and gasoline prices,” said Greenpeace energy co-ordinator Dave Martin. “This is obviously going to provide the incentive for conservation and efficiency,” he said - although he noted it also will spur the energy industry to exploit resources in sensitive offshore and arctic regions. Consumers have one way that they can protect themselves, and I think they are getting the message. And that is by investing in more efficient technology.”
(Canadian Press 050925)