New Brunswick Opposition leader Shawn Graham says encouraging New Brunswickers to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles, including gas-electric hybrids, will be part of his party’s next election platform.

He criticized the Conservative government for not backing his party’s plan to give New Brunswickers rebates if they buy hybrid cars.

“It’s clearly evident that the Lord government is not committed to the same vision that we have on energy-efficient vehicles or the legislation would have passed last session,” said Graham.

“We are going to continue to promote our ideas and again, we’re less than a year away from an election, so it is something we will present to the electorate and it’s a commitment we will honour if given the chance to govern.”

Earlier this spring Liberal energy critic T.J. Burke introduced legislation that would have offered a rebate of up to $1,500 to anyone who buys or leases a new hybrid vehicle.

Graham’s remarks come after an official with the Canadian oil industry association commented Wednesday, at an event hosted by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, that the best way for governments to help consumers deal with escalating fuel prices would be to encourage them to use less gas.

Carol Montreuil, vice-president of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute said efforts such as gas-price regulation leave consumers with higher prices and add a further level of complexity in an already intricate global energy market.

Graham said a provincial sales tax rebate program would encourage more New Brunswickers to purchase hybrid gas-electric vehicles, which are often priced higher than comparable cars.

He described the government’s major gas-price initiative of regulating gas prices as a comedy of errors.

“There is also the fear that a number of rural stations will end up closing over the long term in this new regulated marketplace, meaning that New Brunswick consumers will have to drive farther to fill up their vehicle, thus costing more.”

With the continuing crisis in the Middle East likely to drive oil prices higher, the best way to help New Brunswickers deal with high energy costs is to help them become more energy efficient, he said.

While the province has established the Efficiency NB agency to encourage energy efficiency, its efforts to date have focused on residential home heating programs.

Marc Belliveau, spokesman for the Department of Energy, said Efficiency NB will examine ways to encourage fuel efficiency in the near future.

“It’s a fairly new agency and they were thrown a curveball with the cancellation of the EnerGuide program, which they’ve (since) handily overcome,” he said, adding he was confident it would be looking at transportation issues soon.

In addition to Efficiency NB’s efforts, the department is also examining ways it can help New Brunswickers become more fuel-efficient.

The Department of Energy has worked with the Department of Finance to look at ways the province could offer incentives to purchase hybrid cars, he said.

“It was determined, though, that one of the bigger problems about the hybrid vehicle as such is that it provides incentives to a very select group of the public (who can afford it),” he said.

The department is continuing to look at the issue to see whether it could also help consumers with far less spending power.

Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an economic and social policy think tank, said tax incentives to encourage people to buy hybrid cars is the wrong approach.

Instead, the provincial government should work with the federal government on tougher fuel economy requirements on automobile manufacturers rather than trying to influence consumers through tax breaks.

The province should also scrap gas-price regulation as it prevents people from making the move to more efficient vehicles, he said.

“The first thing to do is to stop trying to interfere with the price and to stop making it out like rising price is some kind of disaster, because in fact, people have shown they can adjust their behaviour quite successfully to compensate for rises in energy prices,”

While energy prices have risen significantly over the past four years, such increases have not slowed down the economy, he said.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt people (or that) it doesn’t pinch them in the short-run, but the whole point is, if you try and prevent the pinching in the short-run, they don’t change their behaviour in the long term,” he said.

“The point of higher prices isn’t to make people pay more. It’s to get them to use less and this is a point that’s often lost on people.”