Firms controlling 92% of LPG market making identical price hikes is clearly dubious

Oil companies have announced identical increases in the retail price of LPG (Photo from Luis Liwanag/AFP/Getty Images)

Something is clearly dubious when four companies that together control almost 92% of the domestic market for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) implement identical price hikes. Last week, Petron, Shell, Liquigaz, and Total separately announced the same increase of P4 per kilogram in the retail price of their LPG. These same companies have also separately announced identical LPG price hikes of P2 per kg in the second week of January. The rounds of price increases came amid reports of supposed shortage in LPG supply and allegations of overpricing.

Petron controls 37.8% of the domestic LPG market, followed by Liquigaz (24.6%); Shell (20.5%); and Total (8.7%). Only through their collusion can a supposed “shortage” in LPG supply occur and rake in windfall profits from higher retail prices. The greed for profits of these oil companies becomes even more deplorable considering that they have yet to adequately answer allegations of abusive pricing. Bayan, for instance, has earlier estimated that LPG prices should be rolled back by almost P61 per 11-kg cylinder tank to offset the oil firms’ overpricing last year. Even the Department of Energy (DOE) has been saying that LPG retail prices should not exceed P500 per 11-kg tank.

Threats of sanctions from the DOE are apparently not enough to check the abuses of the oil companies, especially the local units of the world’s largest oil transnational corporations (TNCs). Despite “strong warnings” from the DOE and the existence of a DOE-DOJ task force, created under the Oil Deregulation Law to purportedly curb abuses in the industry, not a single oil company has been punished for preying on the consumers. The problem is not simply the proper implementation of the Oil Deregulation Law because this policy by design creates conditions for price abuses to take place.

With thousands of Filipino workers here and abroad being displaced everyday due to the global financial and economic crisis, such abuses, tolerated by the government under the pretext of free market, become increasingly unforgivable. Worldwide, the raging economic crunch, bankruptcies, and economic dislocations have profoundly discredited the so-called free market implemented through policies such as the Oil Deregulation Law. Even the most ardent proponents of free and deregulated markets including the US government are now gradually reining unrestricted economic activities in hope to address what is now widely described as the worst crisis of global monopoly capitalism.

Price control, including effective regulation of oil price adjustments, is among the package of immediate measures that can help mitigate the impact of the global crisis on ordinary Filipinos. As more workers become jobless and underemployed, reasonable prices and affordable cost of living through effective state intervention become more imperative. Indeed, the massive economic dislocation, which even labor officials concede is happening at an alarming pace, further justifies the people’s demand to repeal the Oil Deregulation Law.

LPG issues

(Photo from AFP)

Amid reports of a supposed “shortage” in supply of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in the country, the House of Representatives committee on energy chaired by Rep. Mikey Arroyo has scheduled a probe (on Feb 3) on the issue. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy (DOE) has warned LPG dealers that they will be charged with profiteering if they retail their 11-kilogram (kg) cylinder tanks at more than P500.

But these efforts of the House and the DOE are futile in the context of a deregulated downstream oil industry. For one, the de facto “price cap” imposed by the DOE on 11-kg LPG tanks contradicts the spirit of deregulation, which is to allow the so-called market forces to determine the prices of oil products.

Interestingly, a quick check at the price monitoring of the DOE posted at its website will show that several LPG brands are in fact being retailed by more than P500. As of January 21, the Caltex LPG retails by as high as P520 in Metro Manila; Catgas, P525; and Philgas, P520. If the DOE is serious with its threat to penalize profiteering LPG retailers, then it only needs to look at its own price monitoring and punish the guilty firms. Then again, how can the DOE penalize oil firms retailing LPG at more than P500 when they can conveniently argue, as they have done many times in the past, that they have simply considered supply, demand, competition, and other market factors in their pricing?

Secondly, any investigation on the reported “shortage” of LPG supply will only meet a brick wall if the House committee on energy will not recognize how deregulation has only strengthened the monopoly existing in the LPG market. Its apologists claim that because of deregulation, “new players” have significantly cut into the LPG market monopolized by the Big Three (Petron, Shell, and Chevron).

But despite the entry of the so-called “new players” under the deregulation regime, almost 92% of the domestic LPG market is still monopolized by only four companies: Petron accounts for 37.8% of the local LPG market, followed by Liquigaz (24.6%), Shell (20.5%), and Total (8.7%). Petron acquired the LPG retail business of Chevron in June 2007 and now retails the “Caltex LPG”brand. Total, on the other hand, has a 15% stake in Shell Gas Eastern Inc. through a joint venture with Shell. Liquigaz is a local subsidiary of SHV Gas, the world’s largest retailer of LPG based in The Netherlands.

Any issue about “shortage” should be adequately explained by these four companies. Any probe on lack of LPG must start on an investigation of these firms, which overwhelmingly control depots, terminals, and refilling stations and hold the widest network of dealers in the country. But will Rep. Arroyo and DOE secretary Angelo Reyes go after them or will they merely pin the blame on the small retailers such as the members of the LPG Marketers’ Association (LPGMA)? But going after these big companies is tantamount to an admission that deregulation has failed, the same policy that Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has vehemently defended against all odds.

As long the downstream oil industry is deregulated, Filipino consumers will have no security in LPG and oil supply. Worse, consumers will continue to be hapless prey to abusive oil companies that charge overpriced petroleum. As of this writing, the country’s four biggest LPG retailers (Petron, Liquigaz, Shell, and Total) have already implemented an identical P2 per kg hike in LPG prices. They claim that the international (Saudi Aramco) contract price of LPG has jumped from $336.5 per metric ton in December 2008 to $380 this month.

But using the Dubai crude price movement as well as changes in the US dollar-peso exchange rate, oil companies should actually still rollback the retail prices of LPG by P60.81 per 11-kg cylinder tank The amount represents the “overpricing” that the oil firms have implemented for the entire 2008.(END)