Nursery Notes: Gas prices affect greenhouse industry

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This column is for those of you who like to keep warm using natural gas. For many years, I have worked in the greenhouse industry and my livelihood depended on factors including the price of natural gas. I have always kept an eye on it. In 1999, I decided to go looking for a farm of my own. I “wrangled” a quota for greenhouse tomatoes. I wrote a solid business plan for the venture. Several banks offered funding. We ended up purchasing the farm here in Erickson in 2000.

If memory serves me correctly, for most of the 1990s, natural gas prices stayed at or around $2 a gigajoule (GJ). Towards the end of the nineties it doubled and then went higher, to around $6/GJ. The new pipeline went across the southern portion of the province (through the valley here, too) to connect with a main line heading south to California via Sumas, B.C. Technological improvements led to it increasingly being used for generating electricity. A few years ago, it was reported that about 45 per cent of California’s electricity was produced by burning natural gas.

In the meantime, our Crown corporation BC Gas was sold to an American firm that has since resold it. The price peaked at around $12/GJ before coming back down as the economy has slowed over the last five years. We are now paying about $2.98/GJ plus a delivery charge $3.37/GJ, a basic administrative charge and assorted taxes for our residential gas consumption.

In any case, with the deregulation of natural gas sales there are, according to the manager of one sales firm, about 20 companies trying to sell you natural gas. As quite a few people have just now finished their first five-year term, “salesmen” are out and about trying to sign you up again. An elderly acquaintance of mine had just escaped her contract paying three times more for her gas than she should have been were she not on a contract, when on Nov. 11 another salesperson had her signed up to pay only two times as much as the going rate. Such a deal.

I don’t have a crystal ball but I wouldn’t bet on the price of gas increasing by double over the next few years. It seems there is now a surplus in the supply chain. Having read the Advance’s police news from Remembrance Day, I decided to write this article. It looks to me like an overbearing natural gas salesman. Keep in mind if someone is selling you something in your own home there are consumer protection laws to assist you in cancelling the deal. According to their own paperwork, it looked like you had 10 days.

As for the smaller greenhouse vegetable producers left in the Interior, many have switched to burn coal, wood waste or simply closed down. After $6/GJ, the price of the gas eats into your labour fund and you end up working for free.

Evan Davies owns Beltane Nursery at 2915 Highway 3 in Erickson.