No overpricing? Oil review, as usual

Economists Benjamin Diokno (right) and Victor Abola, stalwarts of academic institutions that are known bastions of neoliberalism, led the latest oil price review commissioned by the DOE (Photo from bulatlat.com)

As expected, the Independent Oil Price Review Committee (IOPRC) set up by the Department of Energy (DOE) has cleared the oil companies of overpricing and accumulating excessive profits. DOE officials, of course, were very happy with the findings as they affirmed the position of the department that local pump prices simply reflect global prices. While I haven’t read or heard a reaction from the industry, I’m pretty sure that they’re as happy as the DOE officials.

The main findings of the panel are not at all surprising especially to those who are familiar with similar efforts in the past by the DOE of asking so-called independent experts to review the Oil Deregulation Law (ODL) and pricing practices of oil companies. The IOPRC study is now the third such review in the last seven years commissioned by the DOE to help it justify the unpopular and contentious ODL, and rationalize the high and increasing pump prices. You may download these past reviews, as well as the 2012 IOPRC’s summary of findings, from the following links:

So-called independent oil reviews have been part of the propaganda arsenal of the DOE to temper increasing public discontent due to rising oil prices. It has been the case in the 2005, 2008 and 2012 reviews. Government is using academic institutions like the School of Economics of the University of Asia and Pacific (UA&P) and the University of the Philippines (UP) to create a semblance of objectivity. But the truth is these academic institutions are known bastions of neoliberalism, producing technocrats who design policies like market deregulation and thus, are never neutral.

The 2012 full report has not yet been made public, only the summary of findings that IOPRC head Benjamin Diokno presented to the media last August 5. From what I understand, the full report will be released on August 10 in a public presentation at the UP School of Economics (UPSE), where Diokno is professor emeritus. Thus, a detailed critique of the study may not be possible at this time. But based on what has been shared by Diokno in the media as well as our discussions with the IOPRC during the public consultations, we can already point out some basic defects of the study.

Determining overpricing

During the public consultations, one of the main points raised was how to determine overpricing and excessive profits. Diokno explained that the panel will study price movements in the domestic market and compare them with global prices. We argued that while such approach is useful in determining reasonable price adjustments, it does not answer the question of what is the actual cost of oil as bought from the world market. Determining the actual cost is important because if diesel is imported at, say, ₱25 per liter and retailed here at ₱45 per liter, then the oil companies will have to justify why the ₱20-markup is not overpricing and profiteering.

Thus, we were really insistent that the IOPRC closely scrutinize the supply contracts of the oil firms, especially the four biggest – Petron, Shell, Chevron and Total – which have deep links with the world’s oil giants. Our contention was that the posted spot price of oil such as the Mean of Platts Singapore (Mops) and Dubai crude, which the oil firms claim they use in computing pump prices and which the IOPRC also used in its study, are way too bloated than the actual cost of oil. Our argument was that the biggest oil firms which have ties with the global oil giants buy oil at much cheaper prices than published Mops or Dubai prices. Add to this the impact of massive speculation that further artificially bloats the price of Mops and Dubai crude. Alas, these points, along with pretty much everything we raised during the so-called consultations, were dismissed by the IOPRC.

There was no illusion, of course, that Diokno and his panel will heed our proposals. Nonetheless, its refusal to look at the global supply contracts underscored the biggest flaw of the IOPRC – its faulty neoliberal assumption that free market forces set the global price of oil which will be directly and easily translated to competitive and fair pump prices under a regime of deregulation. This basic flaw had also characterized previous DOE-commissioned studies that arrived at the very same conclusions of the IOPRC. More on this later.

Anyway, we have been pointing out that the global oil industry, in its more than a century of existence, has never enjoyed free competition and has always been under the monopoly control of American and European oil giants, including Shell, Chevron, etc. Despite the rise of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), these oil giants have maintained their dominant position through their monopoly over technology, capital, infrastructure, etc., and through the protection of the superior military power of their governments. (See PowerPoint presentation on imperialism and the global oil industry)

The impact on prices of global monopoly control and speculation is mind-boggling. In our updated estimates, as of July 2012, global monopoly pricing and speculation account for some 59% to 73% of global crude oil prices. The basic data came from the US’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) that a barrel of crude oil can be produced with a cost of just $26.63 to $40.46 per barrel (including royalties of around 14% of the spot price), which are way below the posted global price of Dubai crude, the country’s benchmark for crude oil, of $99.22 per barrel, as of July. (See illustration below) The difference of $58.76 to $72.59 per barrel between the estimated production cost and the posted price roughly represents the impact of global speculation and monopoly pricing. Such super-bloated global prices are directly passed on to Filipino consumers because of deregulation.

Meanwhile, the claim of the IOPRC that oil firms are faithfully reflecting global price movements in their local pump stations should also be still re-examined. Based on our own monitoring of the impact of monthly fluctuations in global prices and foreign exchange rate, diesel is overpriced by around ₱10.26 per liter, as of July. This estimate is based on the monthly movement of Dubai crude prices and foreign exchange rates and their estimated impact on local pump prices from 1999 to the present, or the whole period under the current deregulation law (Republic Act 8479). From January to July 2012 alone, diesel has been overpriced by ₱1.64 per liter. (Read Notes on overpricing, which explains the methodology; just be aware that the figures being cited in the Notes are not updated) It must be clarified that the said figures represent local overpricing only – or simply the disparity between monthly changes in global crude prices and domestic pump prices – and thus, do not yet capture the much bigger impact of speculation and monopoly pricing by giant foreign oil companies on petroleum prices as discussed earlier.

A counter-argument that will certainly be made by the IOPRC and the DOE is that they are using Mops prices as benchmark and no longer the traditional Dubai crude in computing domestic pump prices. The only reason for this is that supposedly, the country is importing more finished petroleum products than raw crude oil and thus using the Mops is supposedly more accurate. Also, of the more than 600 players in the downstream oil industry, only two – Petron and Shell – are refiners and import crude oil. But Petron and Shell together account for 58.4% of the market while crude oil imports comprise more than 53% of the country’s total volume of imported oil. Thus, it is erroneous to dismiss Dubai crude and rely exclusively on Mops when estimating domestic pump price adjustments.

Lack of fresh perspective and independence

Why was it so easy for the IOPRC and past review panels to absolve the oil firms? One issue that should be raised with these supposedly independent studies is that the members who conducted the review lack a fresh insight or alternative perspective on the issue of the oil industry. All studies on the ODL and oil prices commissioned by the DOE were carried out by academics and technocrats with the same bias for neoliberal free market and for corporations. Another concern is independence, as it appears that the panel members of these review committees are in one way or another have ties with the oil industry and government.

In 2005, the DOE formed a review body headed by Carlos R. Alindada, retired chairman of giant accounting firm Sycip, Gorres, Velayo (SGV) and a former commissioner of the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC). In 2008, the DOE tapped the SGV and the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P) to conduct a study on the reasonableness of oil prices in the country. It was headed by UA&P’s Dr. Peter U Lee, who incidentally, was also a member of the 2005 Alindada oil review panel.

SGV has among its clients some of the leading oil companies in the country. The UA&P, on the other hand, has always been an advocate of neoliberalism. Described as a private research university, the UA&P was founded as the Center for Research and Communication (CRC) in 1967 by economists Bernardo Villegas and Jesus Estanislao. Villegas and Estanislao were both key economic advisers of the Aquino and Ramos administrations, which implemented the most far-reaching neoliberal restructuring of the economy in the late 1980s and 1990s including the privatization and deregulation of the energy sector and downstream oil industry. Estanislao, who was a former Department of Finance (DoF) and National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) secretary of the late President Cory Aquino, was a member as well of the Diokno-led IOPRC together with UA&P Program Director for Strategic Business Economics economist Victor Abola. The UA&P has recently tied up with Pilipinas Shell in launching the First Shell Sustainable Development in Action Youth Congress, which has become a venue to promote the deregulation of the oil extraction sector, where Shell has a stake through the Malampaya natural gas project.

As UPSE stalwart Diokno, who was also the former secretary of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) under the Estrada administration, has been a leading proponent of neoliberalism in the country. In fact, he has been a vocal supporter of the ODL and in 2008, when oil prices were escalating to record levels, declared that reviewing the deregulation policy will not solve the problem of high oil prices. During the public consultations held by the IOPRC, he made it clear that there’s no alternative to deregulation, and nationalization is the worst thing that could ever happen to the oil industry. (This, of course, is not true, as there are alternative proposals currently pending in Congress, including a comprehensive oil regulation bill filed by Bayan Muna.) With such thinking, the IOPRC head has apparently already made up his mind even before the “probe” started.

In an attempt to give a semblance of encouraging the participation of marginalized stakeholders, the DOE included in the review panel representatives of the public transport sector and consumers. But like bogus partylist groups and representatives, public transport was not represented by a jeepney or a bus driver but by the lawyer of President Aquino’s Hacienda Luisita Inc., Vigor Mendoza, who chairs the 1-United Transport Alliance (1-Utak), while consumers, on the other hand, were represented by a businessman, Raul Concepcion.

What can we expect from such a line-up of reviewers? Well, aside from absolving the oil firms of overpricing and raking in excessive profits, the IOPRC, again as expected, also revived the proposal of past oil review panels to deregulate the public transport sector to complement the deregulated oil prices. This means more exploitation and is a surefire formula for chaos as it pits commuters and jeepney drivers against each other, when in fact, they are both victims of greedy oil companies and of the deeply flawed deregulation policy. #

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6 thoughts on “No overpricing? Oil review, as usual

  1. What are the specific policy recommendations of the left exactly? why would those work? are there any websites/papers that talk extensively about these policy recommendations?

  2. thanks for your interest, gabby. here’s the 2005 policy paper of ibon (http://ibon.org/includes/resources/2005-10_pp_oilregulation.pdf) that outlines and explains each specific policy proposal for a regulated oil industry.

    what we’re proposing to our policy makers is unlike the so-called “regulated” regime prior to the passage of the oil deregulation law. the establishment of a buffer fund (& supply) to cushion the impact of drastic increases in global prices, for example, is not the old opsf. the buffer fund is not a stand alone measure because it will only be effective and sustainable if implemented in conjunction with other proposals such as centralized oil procurement, etc.

  3. arnold,

    salamat. lots to digest. maybe you can write blogposts on each leg of this ibon proposal.

    first — commodity swaps. there are financial arrangements, no commodities ACTUALLY change hands.

    what you are proposing arent commodity swaps, in the common sense of the term.

    setting that aside — is there any country in the world that does that?

    even if there are, what commodities can the philippine government promise at sufficient volumes/values. Note: these are usually have to be durable commodities, such as minerals, etc.

  4. Pingback: Philippines news: 10 mahahalagang istorya na pinalampas ng midya noong 2012 | Pinas news library

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