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Fuelling the fire 

Saving at the pumps just got a tiny bit easier with the help of a website. Guy Quenneville fills up.

Not all gas prices were created equal.

Often the gas prices at one station can be very different from prices at a station two or three blocks down the street, sometimes by as much as seven cents. For those who simply gas up at the first station they see, it’s a frustrating experience. But a website is helping consumers win the battle at the pumps.

Halifaxgasprices.com is a forum in which Halifax car owners can post the most recent gas price they’ve spotted at any gas station in the province. The prices are ranked in two main charts: lowest regular gas price and highest regular gas price. The site, started in June of 2000, grew out of the frustration of its co-founders, Dustin Coupal and Jason Toews.

“One of my coworkers used to come into work and say gas was cheaper on his end of the city,” says Toews, who hails from Regina but maintains the site from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “This wasn’t abnormal. It was quite a common occurrence. That got me wondering. Why couldn’t I find cheap gas on my end of the city? I didn’t know where to look.”

The site is only one of many operated by Toews and his partner. They have sites covering every metro city in North America with a population over 150,000. In the last few years, the Halifax site has grown considerably. It now features links to gas-related news stories from a variety of sources across Canada and the United States, as well as a discussion forum. The topics vary from grumblings about how “senior citizens” take too long in the morning to gas up, to boasts about who posted the most prices that day.

Toews estimates that the Halifax site averages some 5,000 hits a day. Toews, who also runs a consulting company involved with web design and programming, says he’s “not getting rich off the site. We’re not making millions. But we do make enough from advertising sales to cover the costs of maintaining the site—running the servers, keeping the domain name, etc.”

Traffic on the site did pick up considerably after the $1.30 spike earlier this fall. But, Toews maintains, “Internet advertising is not what is used to be since the dot-com heyday.” But that’s not the point of the site, he says. “We’re a consumer advocacy group for gas prices and trying to help people save money on gas. We get a lot of positive feedback about the site.”

Gas station attendants and managers are understandably jittery about publicly voicing any opinion on the site or the larger issue of gas prices. But one unnamed manager of a local Petro Canada station with a recent low price of 94.9 cents per litre, who’s “been in the business since the age of 16,” admits sites like this are good because they “help keep the oil companies on their toes.”

Michael Southern, a senior communications advisor for Petro Canada who admits he has not seen the site, nevertheless echoes that sentiment. “I think that any sort of information that helps consumers to make a more informed choice is good information. I am aware of other websites like it. We’ve made changes to our corporate website to include information about how prices are determined.”

Graham Conrad, executive director of the non-profit Nova Scotia Retail Gasoline Dealers Association, says sites like this help make sense of the increasingly complicated gas price system. “There is so much unpredictability, such a lack of understanding, so much doubt, confusion and cynics who think that oil companies are gouging. All these impressions—whether rightfully or wrongfully formed—are there because of the erratic prices of oil companies. You wouldn’t be able to live if you paid your electricity or phone bill or coffee that way. There’s no way.”

Still, Conrad does express some skepticism about the usefulness of the information posted on the site.

“I respect what the site is trying to do. But at the same time, someone who lives is not going to go to Bayers Lake to get gas even if it’s cheaper there. If gas prices are higher, I want to know why. Prices here need to be compared to other regulated markets. Then and only then is our consumer in a position to know if what is happening in Halifax is a local phenomenon or if Nova Scotians are being treated better or worse than other markets in the country.”

Nevertheless, Toews remains impressed with the popularity of his sites. “We had no idea of the scope and the scale of what we were starting. We’re just happy to point out to people that you can save five, six or seven cents per litre just by knowing where to look on your daily commute.”

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