Heartless, greedy Meralco thrives under privatized, deregulated regime

meralco ganid

With the country still reeling from the devastation wrought by Yolanda, the people are facing yet another disaster – the calamity of soaring prices. People ask: Are the oil companies and Meralco (Manila Electric Co.) that heartless and greedy?

Alas, this is the cruel reality of neoliberal economics, of deregulation and privatization. The market is regarded as greater than the people, and government allows the heartless and greedy to reign.

Price hikes

Starting December, oil firms implemented a record-high increase in LPG prices. Petron hiked its LPG price by P14.30 per kilogram (kg); Liquigaz, P13; and Solane, P11. These translate to an increase of P121 to P157 for an 11-kg LPG tank commonly used by households.

Then the oil companies jacked up the price of other petroleum products. Diesel rose by P1.35 per liter; kerosene, P1.20; and gasoline, P0.35. This week, oil firms implemented another round of oil price hikes with diesel rising by 30 centavos. Prior to the latest increases, the price of diesel has already jumped by P4.08 per liter this year and gasoline by P2.04, based on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) monitoring.

And of course, Meralco said that it will implement a hefty increase in power rates this month. The distribution utility said that the hike in its generation charge could reach P3.44 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) but it will be implemented in installments to mitigate the impact.

The Energy Regulatory Commissioned (ERC) allowed Meralco to collect the increase in three tranches. That would be P2 in December, P1 in February and P0.44 in March.

But generation is just one component of the electricity bill that will rise. Also increasing is the transmission charge, which will go up by P0.04 per kWh. Taxes (value-added tax and local franchise tax), system loss charge, lifeline rate subsidy and others, which are a percentage of generation and transmission costs, will also add another P0.67 per kWh in the Meralco bill.

Thus, the actual rate hike to be felt by consumers would be P2.41 per kWh in December, P1.21 in February and P0.54 in March.

However, while the sudden impact of a one-time huge rate hike will be mitigated, consumers will end up paying more. According to the ERC, Meralco may charge its customers an interest on the entire deferred amount or the so-called carrying cost.

And even at a staggered basis, the rate hike would still be tremendous. A 200-kWh household, for instance, will see its Meralco bill jump by P482 this month.

The increase in power bill creates a domino effect on the prices of other basic goods and commodities. Contrary to propaganda of government and big business, wages are not the main driver of price hikes but electricity cost. The Employers Confederation of the Philippines (Ecop) said that power accounts for as much as 40% of production cost.  With the big Meralco rate hike, Ecop also warned of higher prices.

‘What can we do?’

The official who is supposed to be in charge over the oil and power sectors – Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla – had this to say to the restless public: “Kung nagkasabay-sabay silang lahat, hindi yan pinlano, it just happened. What can we do…? Don’t buy, kung namamahalan kayo!”

Of course, Meralco’s customers could not choose not to buy electricity from Meralco. They have no choice. Petilla’s remarks sum up government’s indifference to the plight of consumers, which the Aquino administration has repeatedly displayed in its almost four years in power.

By themselves, the record increases in petroleum prices and electricity bills are already oppressive. But what makes them doubly onerous is that the country is still recovering from Yolanda’s onslaught. Government has not even fully accounted the total number of dead, which now stands at 5,796, according to the latest official count.

Note that this is not the first time that these same companies displayed total disregard of public interest and welfare. Last year, amid the torrential, Ondoy-like rains that poured over Metro Manila, oil companies and Meralco also increased prices.

Price control

Ironically, the country is supposed to be under a state of national calamity as declared by President Benigno Aquino III through Proclamation No. 682. But the string of record price hikes shows that big business can act with impunity.

The reason is that the price control aspect of the proclamation is limited by law and the overall deregulation policy of government. Under Republic Act (RA) 10623 (which amended RA 7581 or the Price Act), the price of LPG may be controlled under a state of calamity but only for 15 days. The price of LPG and other petroleum products is deregulated under RA 8479 or the Oil Deregulation Law.

Electricity rates are also not included among the basic necessities that government may control during a state of calamity. Through RA 9136 or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), government deregulated the setting of the generation charge of Meralco and other distribution utilities. Epira also deregulated rate-setting through the wholesale electricity spot market (Wesm).

To pave the way for the deregulation of the oil and power industries, government privatized Petron Corp. and the National Power Corp. (Napocor).

The Oil Deregulation Law and Epira trump the Price Act and any proclamation of a state of calamity. Apparently for government, not even the strongest typhoon ever recorded could change that. Both policies were imposed on the country by foreign creditors led by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Artificial tightness

The huge Meralco rate hike is a perfect example of how privatization, deregulation and lack of state control over key sectors burden the consumers. Had government not relinquished effective control over energy development to profit-oriented private business, the public would have been spared from the impending hefty increase in power rates.

The supposed tight energy supply is only artificial. It could have been prevented if the maintenance shutdown of the country’s energy sources and power plants were effectively controlled by government. But because it relies too heavily on private business, government has no handle in determining the maintenance schedule of power plants in a way that ensures energy security and public interest.

For instance, the maintenance shutdown of Malampaya started on Nov. 11, the same date that President Aquino put the country under a state of calamity. Energy officials already knew then that it will trigger a big spike in power rates. At that time, energy supply in Luzon was already tight due to a series of maintenance shutdowns of major power plants.

Plant shutdowns

Meralco, in fact, already implemented a large increase in power rates in November when it jacked up its rates by P1.24 per kWh. The utility giant said that the maintenance shutdown of several big power plants was the main factor behind the rate hike. These were Unit 2 of Malaya power plant in Rizal (Dec. 2012 to Oct.); Unit 2 of Pagbilao plant in Quezon (Aug. to Nov.); Unit 1 of Sual plant in Pangasinan (Sep. to Oct.); and Sta. Rita Module 20 (Oct. 23-28).

In addition, a number of power plants were also on forced outage. These were San Lorenzo Module 60 (May to Mar. 16, 2014); Unit 1 of Masinloc plant in Zambales (Sep. 25-28); Unit 2 of Calaca plant in Batangas (Sep. 29 to Oct. 1); Quezon Power (Oct. 5-6); and Unit 1 of Sual plant in Pangasinan (Oct. 22-26).

Monopoly and manipulation

But instead of ensuring that Malampaya will remain online, especially after Yolanda, government stood idly as the source of 40% of Luzon’s power needs was cut off. The shutdown of Malampaya and of the other power plants, said Meralco, forced its suppliers Sta. Rita and San Lorenzo power plants to use more expensive fuel.

The utility giant claimed that it was also compelled to buy more from the Wesm where electricity is being sold at a higher price. Meralco said that its exposure to Wesm will increase from less than 5% to 12% due to the Malampaya shutdown.

Note, however, that the private investors who control Meralco are the same investors that control the power plants as well as the traders in the Wesm. The 1,000-megawatt (MW) Sta. Rita and the 500-MW San Lorenzo plants are owned by the Lopez group, which also has a 3.9%-stake in Meralco. Power plants associated with the Lopez group also account for around 18% of the capacity registered at Wesm.

Illegitimacy of rate hikes

The concentration of ownership over power generation and distribution, and even over the spot market, raises a valid question on the legitimacy of the power rate hikes. The same thing can be said in the case of the oil industry wherein basically just four companies lord over more than 80% of the industry.

Thus, the move of the House of Representatives to investigate Meralco’s rate hike is a welcome development. Officials of the distribution utility, the power plants, and also the DOE should explain the circumstances behind the huge increase.

There is certainly a need to closely look at the shutdown of Malampaya and the power plants as well to determine if the big power investors are abusing the public through their unhampered control over the energy sector.

But more importantly, policy makers must reconsider government’s energy development program that is hinged on deregulation and privatization. Even without a super-calamity like Yolanda, neoliberal policies like Epira and the Oil Deregulation Law are already greatly oppressing the public. ###

Read more about Epira and the Philippine power industry here and Oil Deregulation Law here

 

Who cares about smuggled oil?

oil stickerPetron Corporation, the country’s largest oil company, has alleged that about one out of every three liters of gasoline or diesel sold in the Philippines is smuggled. For the government that translates to P30-40 billion in lost revenues a year, said Petron boss Ramon S. Ang. For the company it means fewer profits because smuggled oil can be sold at extremely low prices and undermine Petron’s market share.

But why should ordinary Filipinos, who have been forever abused by Petron and other big oil firms, care? Jeepney, taxi and tricycle drivers, the small fishers and farmers do not mind buying smuggled oil if that’s the only way they can boost their meager income eroded by ever rising fuel costs. They simply can’t empathize with Petron’s predicament of seeing its profits fall to “just P2.3 billion” last year. They can’t appreciate the lost government revenues either since social services are hardly felt anyway. Just ask Kristel Tejada’s parents.

If there is one issue that matters to ordinary folks in the allegation of Ang is the huge tax burden imposed by government on a commodity as socially sensitive as oil. The claim of Petron is that smugglers are using the special economic zones to evade paying the 12% value-added tax (VAT) and the excise tax. This allows some retailers to sell cheap oil.

How much do government taxes add to the retail price of petroleum products?

As of April 2, 2013, the retail price of gasoline in Metro Manila ranges from P48.65 to P54.64 per liter, based on the monitoring of the Department of Energy (DOE). The VAT is about P5.84 to P6.56 per liter (12% of the retail price). The excise tax, on the other hand, is fixed at P4.35 per liter. Thus, the VAT and the excise tax comprise around 20 to 21 percent of the current retail price of gasoline.

Compare it to the percentage of government taxes to the pump price of gasoline in the US which is just about 12% (more details here). The Philippines, in fact, has one of the largest taxes as a percentage of gasoline retail price in the world, together with Hong Kong, Thailand, New Zealand, Cambodia and Singapore (read more here). The same thing is true for diesel, which is has zero excise tax but is also imposed with the 12% VAT.

The country’s oil products carry high government taxes despite the elimination of the 3% import duty on crude oil and refined petroleum by the Arroyo administration in 2010. Refusing to scrap the VAT and the Oil Deregulation Law, it was government’s attempt to mitigate the impact of soaring global oil prices.

But it was a futile move. Pump prices remained high and continued to increase exorbitantly in a regime of deregulated prices. The basic problem of monopoly control, overpricing and speculation remained, which even the so-called Independent Oil Price Review Committee (IOPRC) acknowledged. And compounding the consumers’ predicament is the oppressive 12% VAT on oil, in which government revenues increase as oil prices skyrocket.

Consumers need lower oil prices. Government must find ways to reduce them. One immediately doable step is to scrap the VAT. Government may retain the excise tax or re-impose the 3% tariff (except for the most socially sensitive oil products like diesel, kerosene and LPG) but the VAT should go. Government should also devise tax measures that will make oil firms, especially the biggest and most profitable ones, shoulder more tax burden.

As for smuggling, it must be addressed within the framework of deep reforms in the industry and with the aim of dismantling the oil monopoly and curbing price abuses. The problem of rampant smuggling can only be solved if the downstream oil industry is strictly regulated by government.

One possible measure is a system of centralized procurement wherein the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) or any relevant state agency will be the exclusive importer of crude and refined petroleum. Under this system, it will be easier to track or identify smuggled oil, e.g. anything not imported by the PNOC is automatically considered smuggled. It will also help minimize the overpricing of oil companies. (End)

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. #

Greed amid calamity

Bayan and its member groups and allies have launched efforts to generate relief goods for flood victims. See table below for a partial list of drop-off centers.

The country’s largest and most profitable firms are oblivious to the devastation being wrought by torrential rains on Metro Manila and various provinces in Luzon. Displaying barefaced greed, oil companies led by Petron Corp. hiked their pump prices, the fifth round in as many weeks since July. Then, the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) announced a new increase in its generation charge this month. Also, the Business Process Outsourcing Association of the Philippines (BPAP) asked for an exemption from the work suspension order issued by Malacañang.

All these even as hundreds of thousands of mostly poor people are still struggling to survive the worst downpour since tropical storm Ondoy hit the country in 2009. According to the latest update (as of Aug.7, 5 p.m.) from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), the heavy rains spawned by the southwest monsoon have submerged 46 cities and municipalities in Metro Manila and Regions I, III and IV-A, affecting more than 541,000 people. Sixteen have been reported dead.

Such display of cold-blooded corporate greed amid a grave natural disaster is most unconscionable. We have yet to cope with this latest tragedy (and still reeling from the impact of typhoon Gener that preceded the heavy monsoon rains), and already we are being battered by increases in oil prices and electricity rates. Many families have yet to be rescued and still call center firms are requiring their employees to report for work.

But we must not forget that these profit-gluttonous companies have the temerity to do what they do because government allows them. They abuse and oppress the people with impunity because they know that government policies favor them, because they know that they are Aquino’s real bosses.

Petron, owned by presidential uncle Danding Cojuangco, and other oil firms increased their pump prices despite the calamity because the Oil Deregulation Law, which President Aquino has staunchly defended amid criticisms and allegations of overpricing, gives them the right to automatically hike their prices without a public hearing.

Meralco, also owned by Danding and known presidential allies Manny Pangilinan and the Lopez family, increased its generation charge despite the calamity because the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), whose full implementation is being pushed by Aquino despite strong opposition from Mindanao and other sectors, allows it to automatically increase its generation rates without a public hearing.

BPAP, meanwhile, knows that the BPO industry is one of the few supposedly growth areas prioritized by Aquino in his medium-term Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2011-2016 for government promotion. I’m not sure if the administration has granted BPAP’s request. But Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa said that call centers and other private firms that will require their employees to report for work should just “ensure personnel safety and give premium pay”. Para saan pa ang suspension order?

These intolerable acts of greed by the oil companies, Meralco and BPO firms bolster our argument for government to rethink and undo its current policies and programs. Especially during times of calamities, Aquino could not claim helplessness to stop oil price and power rate hikes because his predecessors, as dictated by foreign creditors, chose to deregulate the setting of pump prices and generation charge.

Government must revise its economic plan and stop relying on externally-driven growth sources like the BPO that is so detached from our own development needs, and in this particular case, from our domestic realities. BPO serves American and other foreign clients. Ano bang malay nila kung binabagyo na tayo at nalulunod na sa baha ang mga Pilipinong call center agents?

Unfortunately, Aquino has shown time and again that he is incapable and unwilling to implement the fundamental policy reforms we need.

For an in-depth discussion of these issues, click here (oil), here (power) and here (government’s development plan).

***

The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) and its member groups and allies have launched efforts to generate relief goods for flood victims. Please refer to the table below for a partial list of these initiatives and see which drop-off center for relief goods is nearest to you. Some of the groups have also provided bank accounts where you can deposit cash donations.

Oil overpricing continues despite rollbacks

For the fourth straight week, oil companies rolled back the price of petroleum products. Flying V led the latest round of price cuts, reducing the price of diesel by P0.30 a liter and gasoline by P0.50. Other oil players are expected to follow suit. The Department of Energy (DOE) said that the rollback is due to the stronger peso which offset the increase in global oil prices.

Compared to their end-2011 levels, pump prices this year are still higher by P1.84 per liter for diesel and by P4.40 for gasoline due to the series of price hikes until mid-April.

Local overpricing

But more notably, oil products are still overpriced despite the rollbacks. As of March 2012, diesel is overpriced by around P7.86 per liter and gasoline by P16.18 per liter.

These are based on the monthly movement of Dubai crude and foreign exchange (forex) rate and their estimated impact on the pump price based on a rule of thumb being used by one of the major oil firms.

The estimated impact on the pump price, using the said rule of thumb, varies depending on the respective levels of Dubai and forex in a given month. For instance, in March, Dubai averaged $122.36 per barrel while the forex was pegged at P42.86 per dollar which translates to an estimated impact of P1.20 per liter on local prices for every one dollar increase in Dubai price and for every one peso increase in the forex rate. (See Table 1)

The estimated impact is then compared to the actual adjustments in the pump price. The difference (i.e. when the actual adjustment is bigger than the estimated impact) is considered the “overpricing”. There is “underpricing” when the estimated impact is bigger than the actual adjustment.

The P7.86 per liter for diesel and P16.18 for gasoline represent the accumulated overpricing from January 1999 to March 2012, or the whole period under the 1998 Oil Deregulation Law (ODL). (See Table 2)

Other estimates

Other estimates also show that oil firms are overpricing their products as they take advantage of automatic price adjustments under the ODL. Think tank IBON Foundation, for instance, estimated that diesel prices are increasing 20-22% faster than Dubai crude prices since 1999. Former National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) chief and now Senator Ralph Recto also testified before a Manila court that overpricing could reach P8 per liter.

Global monopoly pricing and speculation

These (local) overpricing estimates simply illustrate that local pump prices increase higher than what movements in global oil price and forex warrant (or smaller in case of rollbacks). They do not represent yet the effect of global monopoly pricing and speculation.

Of the $122.36 per barrel March average of Dubai crude, $78.66 to $92.49 represents monopoly profits and speculation. These estimates are based on US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data that the finding cost of crude oil is only $6.99 to 18.31 a barrel, the lifting cost is only $5.75 to 8.26 a barrel, and royalty is 14% of the posted price ($17.13 based on the March average of Dubai). Thus, to produce a barrel of Dubai crude, the total cost is just $29.87 to 43.70 a barrel.

Review body

The so-called Independent Oil Price Review Committee (IOPRC) set up by the DOE should be looking into these claims. This body is supposed to “study the alleged accumulation of excessive profits by oil companies resulting in grossly unfair pricing”.

It has been conducting “consultations” with people’s organizations to better carry out its mandate, so they say. But its last meeting with members of the Coalition Against Oil Price Increases (CAOPI) ended up as a debate for the most part. The IOPRC headed by staunch neoliberal economist Benjamin Diokno insisted on the parameters imposed on it by the ODL. Diokno, for instance, refused proposals to probe supply contracts and other documents that are key to the determination of excessive profits and overpricing.

Direct action

The lone point raised by CAOPI seemingly agreed to by the IOPRC in that meeting was the change in venue. If the review body is independent, it should use a neutral venue and not the premises of the DOE whose officials are often accused of speaking in behalf of the oil firms. Alas, even that very minor point apparently has not been heeded as consultations tomorrow (May 7) will still be held inside the DOE compound.

Then again, it would be wrong to pin our all our hopes on the IOPRC, whose members have displayed strong bias to the heartless market. Even as groups like CAOPI engage the IOPRC as well as Congress, the best prospects to end overpricing and the abuses of the oil firms and the ODL that perpetuate them still lie in the people’s direct political action. (end)

Join “people power” vs. high oil prices and Noynoying, join CAOPI

The media called it People Power against oil price hikes. And maybe it is, considering how the issue of very high oil prices has united various groups from a wide political spectrum. From militant labor and transport to businessmen, from progressive lawmakers to the more traditional legislators, from Church leaders to the radical youth, from civil society to national democratic organizations. Looking at the lineup of the convenors and supporters behind the Coalition Against Oil Price Increases (CAOPI), one would get a sense of broadness that could resemble those of the movements which toppled two regimes.

Broad coalition

CAOPI was launched last Monday (March 26) in a press conference at the UP campus in Diliman. Convenors and supporters who were present include the progressive bloc in Congress led by partylist representatives Teddy Casiño of Bayan Muna, Ka Paeng Mariano of Anakpawis, and Raymond Palatino of Kabataan; Zambales Rep. Mitos Magsaysay, one of the most vocal critics of the Aquino administration;  former legislator and now publisher Jacinto Paras; Marikina City councilor Jojo Banzon; Alliance of Concerned Truck Owners and Operators (ACTOO) President Ricky Papa; a representative of National Economic Protectionism Association (NEPA) President Bayan dela Cruz; UP Professor and VP for Public Affairs Danny Arao; Anti-Trapo Movement President Leon Peralta; Francis Mariazeta III, a barangay chairman in Manila; and think tank IBON Foundation Executive Director Sonny Africa. They were joined by national leaders of organizations under the multisectoral Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), including militant labor Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), transport group Piston, fisherfolk group Pamalakaya, urban poor group Kadamay, women’s group Gabriela, youth groups Anakbayan and National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP).

Other personalities who joined the coalition or expressed support but were not present during the launch are Novaliches Bishop Emeritus Teodoro Bacani, Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (PCCI) Donald Dee, National Council for Commuter Protection (NCCP) President Elvira Medina, and Manila City Councilor DJ Bagatsing. CAOPI convenors also include members of the Catholic and Protestant clergy, union presidents of the some of the country’s largest companies, as well as student councils of several universities in Metro Manila. (Download the initial list of CAOPI’s convenors and supporters here)

Inaction, crime against the people, too

CAOPI is not calling for the ouster of the Aquino administration. Its raison d’etre is fairly modest – that is for the President to recognize the worsening problem of high oil prices and concretely do something to address it. In its unity statement, the people and groups behind CAOPI said that they are “alarmed and enraged by the inaction of President Benigno Aquino III amid the spate of oil price increases.” The coalition demands that “government immediately intervene to stop the unreasonable oil price hikes, bring down the prices of petroleum products, and control oil prices.”

Edwin Lacierda, Aquino’s arrogant spokesman, as expected dismissed the newly-formed group, insisting that government is addressing the problem. “Kung ayaw n’yong makinig, ano’ng magagawa namin? Kung ayaw nilang maniwala, ano’ng magagawa namin?”

But the simplicity of its message and the concreteness and more importantly, the legitimacy of its demands – amid escalating fuel prices and popular perception of Noynoying – give CAOPI the vast potential to steadily grow and persist, yes, like People Power. Not even the vaunted high popularity rating of Aquino will endure the groundswell of protests and social unrest if government will continue to ignore the problem and insist on its problematic policies like the Oil Deregulation Law and the 12% value added tax (VAT). Note that surveys also show the deteriorating public perception on Aquino’s inaction on high oil prices (for instance, read here).

The Yellow crowd may argue that it is baseless to invoke People Power against Aquino because unlike Marcos and Erap, he is not corrupt. In fact, he is going after Gloria Arroyo, Renato Corona, and their cohorts in plundering the nation. These people are plunderers and they should be punished (although it remains to be seen if Aquino will go all the way in punishing their corruption even if it means undermining the status quo that serves the political elite like Aquino). But going after Arroyo while tolerating and legitimizing the bigger plunderers like the foreign oil companies and their local partners is also a crime against the people. Insisting on collecting the VAT on oil at the great expense of the people is a crime as grave as, if not worse than, collecting tongpats from government projects.

Just and legitimate

CAOPI’s demands and proposals are just and resonate the sentiments of our people. It said that the Aquino administration’s excuse that it is helpless amid escalating fuel prices is unacceptable as it argued that concrete steps can be immediately taken such as: Imposing a moratorium on more oil price hikes, which it said the President can do due to the extraordinary situation of high oil prices undermining public and national interests; immediately bringing down oil prices by removing, suspending or reducing the regressive VAT on petroleum products; and addressing overpricing by oil companies and regulating local prices by and repealing the oppressive Oil Deregulation Law. It challenged President Aquino to exercise political will and implement these reforms to protect the interest of ordinary consumers and the domestic economy. (Download the CAOPI unity statement here)

The group is not asking the people to swamp Edsa to pressure the President to take decisive, pro-people steps against high oil prices, well not yet. But it is asking the public to participate in a series of actions that will force Aquino to listen and do something, beginning with a coordinated noise barrage on March 30. CAOPI declared that it will continue to pressure Aquino and the entire government until they address the urgent problem of excessive oil prices.

Join CAOPI

No group, including the Aquino clique, has a monopoly over People Power, which in its simplest form is about the people asserting its sovereign power to determine which policies best serve their welfare and interests. In demanding that Aquino reverse its position on the VAT and the Oil Deregulation Law and mobilizing the broadest support possible, CAOPI is indeed exercising People Power.

If you wish to become a member or supporter of CAOPI, you may contact its Secretariat at caopi.secretariat@gmail.com and include your name in its Unity Statement. You may also visit the website of Bayan (www.bayan.org) for updates and more information. #

Mar Roxas: From Mr. Palengke to Mr. Perwisyo

Roxas’s 180-degree turn on the issue of oil VAT is yet another proof that the supposed change the Aquino administration has been peddling is nothing but an illusion (Photo from plurk.com)

On the heels of the successful nationwide people’s protest against high oil prices last March 15, Malacañang reaffirmed its position not to lift the 12% value-added tax (VAT) on oil. One of the administration officials who immediately articulated the Palace stand was Mar Roxas, secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC). Defending the oil VAT, Roxas said that revenues generated by the controversial tax “are being used to render services to the public”. “It’s easy to say ‘stop collecting taxes’ but this would mean that a particular government service will be affected,” Roxas argued.

Mar column

It’s amazing how fast Roxas changed his mind about the oil VAT. To those who have a short memory, let me refresh your recollection by quoting portions of Roxas’s column Mr. Palengke that the tabloid Abante used to publish. The opinion piece, entitled “$100 kada bariles”, was published by the popular daily in its Jan. 8, 2008 issue. It was Roxas’s reaction to the then escalating prices of oil that for the first time breached the $100-a barrel mark.

(Click on image to download full article)

“Hindi na po normal ang sitwasyon natin ngayon. Alam nating ang langis ay talagang nakakaapekto sa lahat ng aspeto ng pamumuhay: transportasyon, pagkain, kuryente, manufacturing ng mga produkto, at marami pang iba. Kaya sa bawat pagtaas ng presyo ng langis, sumusunod naman ang presyo ng iba pang produkto at serbisyo. Nanganganib talaga ang bulsa ni Juan dela Cruz. Maikli na ang kanyang pisi, lalo pa itong iikli.

Naaalala ko, noong kakatapos lang na ipasa ang Expanded Value-Added Tax Law noong 2005, sumipa ang presyo ng krudo mula $36 kada bariles hanggang $56, at natakot tayo noon na sumipa pa ito sa $75 kada bariles.

Ngayon, $100 na, ang layo na sa dating mga presyo at kailangan na talaga ang parehong mga agaran at pangmatagalang solusyon sa umaalagwang presyo ng langis. Kailangan na ng political will. Walang lugar para sa mga “token-ism,” o mga pakitang tao. Kung talagang ginugusto ng pamahalaan na makatulong sa ating mga kababayan, isang malinaw at kongkretong hakbang na maisasagawa ay ang agarang pagsuspinde sa EVAT sa langis at mga produktong petrolyo.

Agarang ginhawa sa halagang P4 kada litro ng diesel o P60 kada tangke ng LPG ang maidudulot nito. Kung gusto talaga ng pamahalaan na mapaginhawa ang buhay ng ating mga kababayan, sana’y suportahan nila ang ating panukala.

Hanggang ngayon, tila ba hindi pa rin nagbabagong-loob ang administrasyon dito. Nakakalungkot, dahil P20-30 bilyon lamang ang mawawala sa pamahalaan sa anim na buwang suspensiyon ng EVAT sa langis, kumpara sa kalakhang P1 trilyong revenues nito. At sabihin nang sa mga social services daw, tulad ng edukasyon at kalusugan napupunta ang pondong ito, nararamdaman ba ninyo ito?

Ang nakakalungkot pa, malaking halaga ng buwis na dapat makolekta ay nawawala dahil sa katiwalian at iba pang mga leakages. Noong 2006 nga, ayon sa isang pag-aaral ng DOF mismo, may P107 bilyon ang hindi nakolekta dahil sa mga leakage. Ang lalong nakakalungkot, ang kalakhan ng mga leakage ay naroon sa mga buwis na hindi nakokolekta sa mga malalaking tao. Hindi nakolekta ang P81.96 bilyong potensiyal na kita mula sa corporate income tax. Samantala, ang tinatawag na “tax gap rate” sa income tax ng mga negosyante at propesyonal ay nananatiling mataas, sa 40%, kumpara sa tax gap rate ng income tax ng mga manggagawa, na nasa 10% lamang.”

Pera ni Juan dela Cruz ito, hindi ito pera ng gobyerno. Hangga’t hindi natin nakikita na mahusay ang paggastos ng gobyerno sa pera ng taumbayan, mabuting ibalik muna ito sa kanila upang maibsan ang kanilang kahirapan. Ipinasa noon ang EVAT dahil nanganganib na humina ang ekonomiya dahil sa sinasabi nilang “fiscal crisis”. Ngayon naman, nanganganib na bumagsak ang ekonomiya kapag naipit nang naipit ang pagkonsumo ng ating mga kababayan. Ibang sakit ang ating nararanasan ngayon, hindi puwedeng parehong gamot pa rin ang ating inumin.” (All emphases mine)

People deserve break

Roxas used to think that removing the VAT on oil, even if temporarily as he proposed then, will translate to immediate benefits for the poor. In his 2008 column, he said it’s P4 per liter for diesel and P60 per 11-kilogram (kg) tank for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Today, the immediate benefits are even bigger – for diesel, it’s almost P6 per liter and for LPG, as much as P110. “Government believes it should keep on collecting EVAT on oil and be the sole arbiter on how these revenues should be reallocated. I say, let’s give our people a break… Give the people instantaneous relief from high prices and meager incomes,” said then Senator Roxas in a separate Dec. 20, 2007 press statementNoon, the people deserve a break, pero hindi na ngayon?

VAT for debt servicing

Indeed, the points Roxas had raised against the continued collection of VAT amid soaring oil prices remain as valid as ever. His arguments, in fact, could very well answer the Aquino administration’s excuses to justify the VAT on oil today. For instance, while revenues have increased because of the oil VAT, social services continued to be marginalized in terms of government spending. Most of the revenues are being siphoned off by debt servicing. When Roxas was raising the issue of oil VAT in 2008, social services comprised less than 21% of total public expenditures while the total debt burden (interest payments and principal amortization) accounted for more than 34 percent. In 2011, preliminary data show that social services are still marginalized at less than 23% of public expenditures while the debt burden continued to hold the lion’s share with more than 31 percent. As Roxas said, “Pera ni Juan dela Cruz ito, hindi ito pera ng gobyerno”. Why should we allow the Aquino administration to be the sole arbiter on how these resources should be used?

Tax leakage

Roxas’s point on the tax leakage, meanwhile, remains a compelling argument against the VAT on oil. A 2010 study by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) estimated that individual tax leakage could reach at least P35.69 billion a year from 2011 to 2016. From 2001 to 2005, the individual tax leakage was pegged at P35.74 billion a year, according to a 2006 study by the National Tax Research Commission (NTRC). Despite the hype of Daang Matuwid, the fact remains that bureaucratic corruption, inefficiency, and wastage continue to deprive government of potential revenues. Alas, like the Arroyo administration, the Aquino government is over-relying on the regressive and burdensome VAT instead of finding other ways to raise revenues such as addressing the perennial tax leakage.

“Perwisyo”

As mentioned, Roxas is now dismissing the very same arguments he once espoused against the oil VAT. For him, protest actions against the VAT and deregulation – issues he used to consider as legitimate concerns that government must address – are “perwisyo” or nuisance. Of course, only the naïve will be surprised by such turnaround of a traditional politician. Roxas obviously just rode on the very popular anti-VAT sentiment when he was still eyeing the presidency. (He eventually gave way to Aquino and ran for the vice presidency but lost to Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay in the 2010 elections.) But now that he is part of the incumbent administration as a Cabinet official, the oil VAT has suddenly become indispensable.

Thus, from the consumer advocate Mr. Palengke, Roxas has now transformed into the VAT apologist Mr. Perwisyo.

Illusion of change

Finally, let me share another quotable quote:

“Napakahalaga ang VAT… Ito ang sagot sa mga problemang namana natin… Kung aalisin ang VAT, hihina ang kumpyansa ng negosyo, lalong tataas ang interes, lalong bababa ang piso, lalong mamahal ang bilihin… Kapag ibinasura ang VAT… ang mas makikinabang ay ang mga may kaya…”

That’s not President Aquino or one of Malacañang’s mouthpieces speaking, although the tune is very familiar to the one being chorused by administration officials. It was Mrs. Gloria Arroyo in her speech during her State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Jul. 28, 2008. Arroyo was responding to Roxas and many others who were demanding that the oil VAT be removed or reduced and that pump prices, which then were reaching historic highs, be controlled.

Tapos na ang pamumunong manhid sa daing ng taumbayan? Roxas’s 180-degree turn on the issue of oil VAT is yet another proof that the supposed change the Aquino administration has been peddling is nothing but an illusion. #