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Gas marketers a scam, says resident

Brad Kitchen is angry and he's fighting back.

Brad Kitchen is angry and he's fighting back. He's asking District of Squamish council to make it more difficult for door-to-door marketers to operate in Squamish after he says his wife was pressured into signing a five-year contract to buy natural gas from Universal Energy."I was amazed to find that Universal Energy was given a business licence in Squamish to conduct door-to-door sales," wrote Kitchen in a letter to council. "Did anyone Google 'Universal Energy Scam' before issuing that licence? Is anyone supposed to?"Universal was one of several independent gas marketers fined in August by the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC) after customer complaints about aggressive sales tactics and misrepresentation. It has also been the subject of hundreds of customer complaints to the BCUC since it started marketing in B.C. last year, according to the provincial regulator.In addition to seeking an amendment to the local bylaw governing solicitation, Kitchen has filed his own complaint with the BCUC. The regulator is investigating before it rules on the validity of the contract signed by Kitchen. "I really think this is simple common sense to protect residents from companies like this and predatory sales tactics," wrote Kitchen.Last weekend other gas marketing companies, such as Superior Energy, had sales representatives in Squamish pitching similar supply contracts. Superior Energy this weekend offered consumers the chance to lock into a rate of $9.99/GJ, comparing it to Terasen's old rate of $9.78/GJ instead of the Terasen's new rate of $7.54/GJ.These types of contracts have only been offered in B.C. since 2007, even though they have been in use longer in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba.Gas marketers are independent businesses licensed by the BCUC to sell natural gas through fixed price contracts to residential consumers in most parts of the province, including Squamish. The contract model is referred to as Customer Choice and was developed in response to the provincial government's energy policy released in 2002 as well as requests from customers that they be better able to choose how and from which company they purchase their natural gas.Although the program is managed by Terasen Gas, it is overseen by the BCUC. The price that Terasen charges customers is set every three months as per market price fluctuations and is determined by the BCUC, so it is a variable rate. Gas marketers such as Universal Energy and Superior Energy offer homeowners long-term contracts, usually at a fixed price. The price is typically higher than the current rate Terasen charges at the time the contract is offered, but it is fixed for the length of the contract. These contracts do offer consumers protection from potential increases in natural gas prices; however, they also prevent customers receiving a lower rate should gas prices fall. While prices have risen steadily in recent years, since July, the price of natural gas has dropped, partly because of the global economic turmoil and the overall fall in commodity prices.As a result, Terasen received approval from the BCUC to lower natural gas commodity rates for the majority of its customers in BC.The rate decrease took effect on Oct. 1 and for Squamish residents the rate was cut by $2.24 per gigajoule (GJ) to $7.54/GJ. Choosing whether to stay with the variable rate offered through Terasen or locking into a fixed rate with one of the dozen or so licensed gas marketers is similar to choosing a variable or fixed rate on a mortgage, says Joyce Wagenaar, Terasen Gas Inc.'s director of corporate and marketing communications. "It's a major purchasing decision,'' Wagenaar said. "It shouldn't be a rushed decision.'' She said about 90,000 BC residents have locked into fixed price contracts with gas marketers.-with files from Tim Shoults

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