Door-to-door gas marketers cause confusion for Chilliwack residents

Access Gas Services is part of the Customer Choice program and goes door-to-door signing people up to fixed price contracts. - File
Access Gas Services is part of the Customer Choice program and goes door-to-door signing people up to fixed price contracts.
— image credit: File

The knock on the door comes, confusion ensues.

According to many who have had visits, when the private natural gas marketers arrive, they want to see your gas bill. They mention FortisBC over and over, and some say they imply they are from FortisBC.

“I quickly saw that I wasn’t the only one to fall for this. Other people have experienced the same misleading sales information to signing up for this service.”

That was a comment in one of dozens of complaints against Access Gas Services to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) in recent years.

Access Gas marketers have been going door to door in Chilliwack in recent days signing up homeowners to fixed price agreements, supposedly protecting ratepayers from fluctuating natural gas prices. What some are finding, instead, is just much higher rates.

“Access Gas managed to rope me into a five-month contract without discussing penalty fees or the actual price of their product,” another BBB complainant reported.

One Chilliwack resident, a professional who asked not to be named, said two young men knocked on the door and implied they were with FortisBC or with the energy regulator. They asked to see her bill, which got her alarm bells ringing. Luckily, she signed nothing, the two then left leaving an Access Gas Services flyer behind.

“Gas marketers are required to follow a code of conduct which is reviewed regularly and set by the BC Utilities Commission,” BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) executive director Tannis Braithwaite told the Times. “Mechanisms have been built into the code of conduct to attempt to guard against potential customers feeling pressured into buying gas from a marketer.”

A number of other Chilliwack residents complained about similar incidents and misleading tactics on a local social media page.

“There is a bunch, canvassing areas right now to have customers switch from [FortisBC] to them and they start by asking to see your bill or your furnace etc.,” said one commenter. “They are very shady in how they explain themselves and you really have to press before they will say who they represent.”

If you do press, what they should tell you is that Access Gas Services is one of a handful of licensed natural gas marketers allowed to sell directly to low-volume customers. This is the Customer Choice program, which emerged out of the BC Liberal government’s 2002 energy policy. This became available to commercial customers on Nov. 1, 2004, and to residential customers in the Lower Mainland on Nov. 1, 2007. Effective Jan. 1, 2015, the program is now on Vancouver Island and in Whistler.

What does not seem to be explained properly at the door, is that the companies are not in competition with FortisBC nor are they directly affiliated with FortisBC, they are third party marketers. The gas is still delivered by FortisBC.

Spokesperson Michael Allison explains that FortisBC is the neutral party in all of this, not promoting or discouraging the supposed “choice” offered by private marketers. Allison gives the analogy of variable rate or fixed rate mortgages to explain how it works. What the marketers offer is fixed prices over certain periods of time. With FortisBC, the rate you pays goes up and down with the market.

The problem for customers, not explained by the door-to-door marketers, is that the lowest rates charged by companies like Access far exceed actual natural gas prices.

As of Jan. 1, 2015, the FortisBC rate was $2.48 per gigajoule (Gj). A year later, as of Jan. 1, 2016, the rate is $1.719/Gj. The least expensive rate offered by Access is a one-year deal at 3.89/Gj, more than two times higher than FortisBC. And it goes up from there to 5.89/Gj if you lock into a three- or five-year “GREEN” residential price plan.

Access Gas vice-president Tom Dixon told the Times via email that these prices can be lowered mid-contract if the five-year natural gas price declines, but he says the point of “any forward commodity contract” is “rate premium for price certainty.”

In response to some of the complaints from recipients of door-knocking, Dixon said they do not ask to look at bills unless a consumer has expressed interest in the Customer Choice program. He added that if a customer doesn’t know he or she are under contract with another supplier, they can look at their bill or call FortisBC directly.

As for the misrepresentation at the door, Dixon denies it and says linking his company to FortisBC is essential because of the business model.

“The relationship between FortisBC and natural gas marketers makes it virtually impossible to discuss the Customer Choice program without mentioning FortisBC during a sales presentation,” he said, adding that there are measures in place such as third-party verification calls and the ability for customers to back out within 10 days.

“Gas marketers are required to be transparent and up front about what they are selling and who they are representing,” Allison with FortisBC said. “And if someone does have questions or does believe they have been misled, they need to take a look at the contract, read through it, ask questions, get clear on who exactly is at their door and then they should visit and take a look at the information on there before they make a decision.”

Dixon insists his company is a good option for consumers.

“Given recent events in North American energy markets, Access Gas is offering a valuable service by giving consumers the ability to entirely eliminate natural gas price volatility.”

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