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The New Democratic party wants the federal government to make oil companies accountable for ever-mounting fuel prices in the wake of hurricane Katrina and the expected cost of hurricane Rita.

Two stations in Stratford, Ont. opened on Tuesday charging $2.24 a litre, although their prices dropped later in the day to under $1.

Just after 3 p.m., a station in Barrie, Ont. was reportedly charging $1.99. Other service stations in that southern Ontario city were charging less.

This kind of wild fluctuation must be stopped, NDP industry critic Brian Masse told the committe Thursday.

He said it is time for the Liberals to end their silence on the issue.

"Make energy a government priority," Mr. Masse told the committee. He said that, while the weather cannot be controlled, the government can regulate how the industry passes costs on to the consumer.

Oil firms say gas prices are high because of supply and the likely impact of hurricane Rita. The category 5 storm is currently headed on a northerly course toward a Saturday landfall in Texas.

Mr. Masse said a meaningful response to the crisis by the Canadian government should include transparency, accountability, efficiency and the ability to protect vulnerable people from high prices.

"Canadians have been getting fleeced at the pumps while oil companies continue to rake in huge profits," Mr. Masse said.

"It's unacceptable for Liberals and Conservatives to keep defending the oil industry - enjoying record profits and not being held to account for its pricing practices."

He suggested that the government needs to look beyond the competition bureau to regulate prices.

The New Democrats say they will spend the upcoming session of Parliament, which begins Monday, pushing for Ottawa to look at other alternatives besides oil.

He said the party will also be pushing the government to embrace the NDP-Liberal budget's $900-million worth of environmental initiatives, including helping homeowners to reduce their energy use with energy efficient systems.

The oil industry, meanwhile, is telling MPs it understands frustration over high gasoline prices.

But it says prices are set by supply and demand, and hurricane Rita may yet add more costs at the pump.

Ultramar Ltd. vice-president Ross Bayus told the Commons industry committee Thursday that world demand in 2004 was at its highest since 1978, with refiners struggling to keep up with demand and operating at near full capacity in Canada.

Mr. Bayus said hurricane Katrina levelled 5 per cent of the refining capacity of the United States for several months.

He noted that two Texas refineries in Rita's path have been closed and said that will add to price pressures.

Mr. Bayus told MPs that persistent and radical demand in Asia has also added to volatility.

Alain Perez, president of the Canadian Petroleum Products Industry, told the committee that the industry would pass on any tax cut.

Opposition MPs and some consumer groups want a cut of one or two cents in the 10-cent federal excise tax on gasoline to help ease the impact of high fuel prices.

Users of Web site reported Thursday that prices were at a high of $1.29 a litre in the Toronto, down to a lowest reported price of 95 cents in the previous 24 hours.

In Vancouver, the lowest prices Wednesday according to were about $1 a litre and the highest prices were up to $1.17.

In Calgary on Thursday, the prices ranged from a low of around 90 cents a litre to $101.9.

In Nova Scotia, prices ranged from $1.10 per litre, to $1.16 per litre.

With reports from Canadian Press