By Oliver Lazenby
Blaine gas station owners deal with huge swings in sales; the U.S.-Canadian exchange rate, the price difference in gas between the two countries, and many other factors affect the number of Canadians buying gas in Blaine.
For now, sales are way up and some analysts think the tide of Canadian drivers at Blaine gas stations won’t soon recede. A growing difference in gas prices across the two countries has more Canadians filling their tanks in Blaine than at any time in the past three years and Blaine gas sales are up 50 percent over last year, according to a recent study.
The study, published on June 14 by the International Mobility and Trade Corridor Program, found the amount per liter that BC residents save by filling up in Blaine climbed from 33 cents per liter a year ago to 41 cents per liter in June 2018, or about $21 to fill a 16-gallon tank.
Since the study was published, the cross-border gas price difference has grown slightly, said its author Hugh Conroy, director of planning for the Whatcom Council of Governments.
Factors include a fuel shortage in BC due to pipeline capacity, temporary refinery shutdowns in BC and increased carbon and gas taxes in BC, according to the study.
While BC residents can save even more at the pump by traveling to Bellingham, many are filling up in Blaine. In June 2018, Blaine gas stations sold 2.14 million gallons of gas, a more than 50 percent increase from June 2017, when 1.37 million gallons were sold, according to the City of Blaine’s gas tax revenue numbers.
Mike Hill, owner of Hill’s Chevron at 568 Peace Portal Drive, started seeing more customers in February, he said. His customers are 95 percent Canadian, he estimated, and many live within a few miles of the border and make trips just to buy gas.
“We do have a lot of regulars from Canada who are coming in and out all the time,” he said. “This is probably the biggest increase we’ve had in a few years, volume-wise.”
Sukhwant Singh Gill, owner of the Shell Station at 360 D Street, estimated that his gas sales have grown about 30 percent this year, and sales of wine, beer and dairy have grown along with it.
Gill, who advertises in Canada, said gas is drawing customers south, but they stock up on other products while they’re here.
“When we have more people coming for gas, sales of everything else goes up,” he said.
More border crossings
Along with the increase in gas sales, southbound border crossings at Peace Arch and Pacific Highway increased 16.2 percent from May 2017 to May 2018, the most recent month for which numbers are available, according to Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute (BPRI).
“I think it’s mostly due to gas prices,” said Laurie Trautman, BPRI executive director. “That’s what Customs and Border Protection is saying.”
The Border Policy Research Institute started a survey of border crossers in mid-June that will include information about why they cross. Trautman expects results to be available in August or September.
Western students conducting the survey have heard from Canadians who are avoiding shopping in the U.S. for political reasons, citing a trade war,
“It will be interesting to see when these numbers come out,” she said. “The talk of a trade war really didn’t hit until July, so if there really are Canadians trying to make a stand by not shopping in the U.S., that’s not reflected [in the latest border crossing and gas revenue numbers].”
Gas tax revenue
The City of Blaine levies 1 cent per gallon on gas sales in the city limits, which goes toward a fund for road maintenance. From April to June 2018, the city collected an average of $6,176 per-month more than it did during the same months in 2017.
That cost difference isn’t enough to have an impact on the city’s budget yet, said city finance director Jeffrey Lazenby. Could it if Canadians continue buying gas in Blaine at the current rate?
“If this were to keep up for a year, I would say yes,” he said.
One factor in the bigger cross-border gas price difference is new taxes, and those aren’t likely to go away. B.C. increased its carbon tax starting on April 1 and passed a new gas tax in June.
Because of those taxes and B.C.’s relative isolation from Canada’s refineries, Dan McTeague, a senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.com, a fuel price tracking website, expects the price difference to last, though he didn’t guess how long.
“There’s no relief in sight for Canadians,” he said.
Canada is a net exporter of petroleum, but its refineries are mostly east of the Rockies and B.C. on its own is a net importer. Vancouver drivers regularly pay the highest gas prices in North America.
“I think this is the way of the future,” McTeague said. “Expect more BC license plates in parking lots across Whatcom County.”