More Filipinos think Aquino not addressing oil overpricing

"Heartless" oil firms hit for Valentine's Day price hikes

The latest survey of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) shows that while the Aquino administration continues to enjoy high public satisfaction ratings, more Filipinos are dissatisfied with government response on the issue of oil prices. According to the SWS’s Dec. 3-7, 2011 survey, published yesterday (Feb. 13) by the BusinessWorld, the Aquino administration maintained a high 56% net public satisfaction on its general performance.

But the administration also posted a negative 3% on its performance on the specific issue of “Ensuring that oil firms don’t take advantage of oil prices”. The negative 3% is 7 percentage points lower than the already low 4% that it recorded in SWS’s previous survey in September 2011. Furthermore, the issue of oil is also just one of two among the 19 specific performance indicators included in the SWS survey wherein the Aquino administration registered a negative net satisfaction rating. The other is “Resolving the Maguindanao massacre case with justice” wherein government recorded a negative 18 percent.

(Download the complete results of the SWS survey here)

The survey results came out amid fresh rounds of oil price hikes and widespread public perception that oil companies are overpricing their products and accumulating huge amounts of profits at the people’s expense. The SWS findings clearly indicate that the public is not buying the Aquino administration’s response to the problem of high oil prices and overpricing charges against the oil firms. This includes the Pantawid Pasada program and the establishment of a so-called independent panel to review “the books of oil companies to ensure transparency in fuel pricing”.

The adverse public opinion against the profit-greedy oil companies and lack of government action against their abuses should compel policy makers to initiate reforms in the downstream oil industry. Unfortunately, it is obvious that the people could not expect President Aquino to instigate this policy shift. Aquino has shown unwillingness to heed the demand to repeal the Oil Deregulation Law (ODL) or Republic Act (RA) 8479 and establish a regime of effective state regulation to “ensure that oil firms don’t take advantage of oil prices”. Aquino has also rejected calls for not just the scrapping of the 12% value-added tax (VAT) on petroleum products but even its suspension to at least mitigate the oil price hikes.

But fortunately, some lawmakers have taken notice of the perennial problem of high, escalating, and questionable oil prices and made proposals to look into the ODL and the oil VAT. At the House of Representatives (HoR), for instance, aside from the representatives of progressive partylist groups, legislators from mainstream political parties as well as from moderate partylist groups have also filed bills ranging from amendments of to outright repeal of RA 8479 and suspension or repeal of the VAT on oil.

A quick look at the webpage of the HoR’s committee on energy shows at least five (5) bills proposing to repeal RA 8479 and at least two (2) bills and one (1) resolution proposing review and amendments. On top of these, there are also at least five (5) resolutions calling for a probe on oil pricing as well as one (1) resolution seeking emergency powers for the President to address the oil crisis. Aside from proposals on what to do with RA 8479, at least three (3) congressmen have also filed bills removing or at least suspending the VAT on petroleum products. All in all, there are currently 17 bills and resolutions filed in the 15th Congress of the HoR that aim to reduce and/or control high and escalating oil prices. Meanwhile, at the Senate, at least three (3) bills have been filed that propose to amend RA 8479; institute a system of fair fuel pricing; and impose a cap on the profits of the oil companies.

The following are the bills and resolutions filed at the energy committees of the HoR and Senate on the issue of ODL and oil prices as well as proposals to remove or suspend the VAT on oil filed at the lower chamber’s committee on ways and means:

  • House Bill (HB) 4355 – An act regulating the downstream oil industry and repealing RA 8479 (filed by Rep. Teddy Casiño, Bayan Muna) (Download here)
  • HB 4317 – An act repealing RA 8479 (Rep. Rafael Mariano, Anakpawis)
  • HB 2569 – An act regulating the oil industry, establishing the oil price stabilization fund, and repealing RA 8479 (Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, Partido ng Masang Pilipino or PMP) (Download here)
  • HB 5295 – An act regulating the oil industry thereby repealing RA 8479 (Rep. Winnie Castelo, Liberal Party or LP)
  • HB 00347 – An act regulating the downstream oil industry (Rep. Danilo Suarez, Lakas-Kampi) (Download here)
  • HB 3267 – An act amending RA 8479 (Rep. JV Ejercito, PMP) (Download here)
  • HB 4893 – An act to ensure transparency in pricing, amending RA 8479 (Rep. Romeo Acop, Nationalist People’s Coalition or NPC)
  • House Resolution(HR) 00672 – A resolution directing the energy committee persistent oil shortage and recent spate of oil price hikes (Rep. Ben Evardone, LP)
  • HR 00880 – Resolution directing the energy committee to investigate the price monitoring and regulatory system instituted by the DOE in the light of overpricing allegations (Rep. Luz Ilagan, Gabriela Women’s Party or GWP)
  • HR 01027 – A resolution authorizing President Aquino to exercise emergency powers to address a possible oil crisis in the country (Rep. Teodorico Haresco Jr., Kasangga)
  • HR 01170 – Resolution directing the energy committee to investigate unusually high oil prices in Negros Occidental and other areas outside Metro Manila (Rep. Teddy Casiño, Bayan Muna)
  • HR 01310 – A resolution directing the energy committee to investigate high oil prices in Bacolod City and Negros Occidental (Rep. Roilo Golez, LP)
  • HR 01464 – A resolution directing the energy committee to investigate DOE’s decision of clearing oil firms of price-fixing allegations (Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, PMP)
  • HR 01627 – Resolution urging the HoR to review the ODL for possible amendments (Rep. Mitos Magsaysay, Lakas-Kampi)
  • HB 02806 – An act suspending the VAT on oil (Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, PMP) (Download here)
  • HB 04554 – An act exempting petroleum products from the VAT (Rep. Ma. Theresa Bonoan-David, Lakas-Kampi)
  • HB 2719 – An act exempting petroleum products from the VAT (Rep. Teddy Casiño, Bayan Muna) (Download here)
  • Senate Bill (SB) 1828 – Fuel pricing fairness act (Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, People’s Reform Party or PRP) (Download here)
  • SB 754 – An act amending RA 8479 (Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, PMP) (Download here)
  • SB 2529 – Imposing a 12% cap of paid-up capital on the maximum allowable profits of oil companies (Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, Indpendent)

There is no shortage of proposals on what to do with the problem of high and soaring oil prices and the abuses that oil companies commit. The public, meanwhile, is deeply discontented with what the Aquino administration has been doing (or not doing) to address the issue. The conditions are favorable to aggressively push for the proposals pending in Congress against the ODL and the oil VAT and compel the Aquino administration to support these initiatives or be further exposed as anti-people and pro-oil cartel. #

14 years of oil deregulation is enough! (Last part)

After 14 years of deregulation, the dominant position of the Big Three remains intact, if not stronger, while consumers are forced to bear exorbitant and steadily soaring oil prices

Read part 1 here

When the ever controversial and IMF-pushed ODL was still being deliberated in Congress, its ardent proponents peddled it as the policy that will end the domination of the Big Three oil companies, namely Petron Corporation, Pilipinas Shell, and Chevron Philippines (formerly Caltex), over the local downstream industry. By encouraging “free competition”, deregulation is supposed to promote competitive petroleum prices that will benefit the consumers and the economy. Alas, after 14 years of deregulation, the dominant position of the Big Three remains intact, if not stronger, while consumers are forced to bear exorbitant and steadily soaring oil prices.

Exorbitant oil prices

Instead of competitive prices, the past 14 years saw steep, unabated, and questionable increases in petroleum prices. To illustrate, in February 1998, the month the current ODL was enacted, the pump price of diesel was just P8.33 per liter; unleaded gasoline, P12.62; and LPG, P140 per 11-kilogram tank. Today, diesel is about P46.79 per liter or almost 462% higher than its price when the law was enacted; unleaded gasoline, P56.83 (350% higher); and LPG, almost P800 (about 471%). To have an idea of how steep the increases were, we can compare them to price adjustments during the 14-year period prior to the enactment of the ODL (1984 to 1998). During this period, the pump price of diesel increased by just 36%; gasoline, around 61%; and LPG, about 28 percent.

The impact of these increases on the livelihood of the people is tremendous. A jeepney driver, for instance, used to spend P250 per daily trip for diesel; today, he needs to shell out more than P1,400 (based on the average daily trip consumption of 30 liters) under oil deregulation. A small fisher used to spend less than P117 per fishing trip for gasoline; today, that has gone up to almost P570 (based on the average consumption of 10 liters per fishing trip). A tricycle driver used to spend just P50 per daily trip for gasoline (based on the average consumption of 4 liters per daily trip); today, that amount would not be enough to get even one liter. Aside from the direct impact of oil price hikes on the people’s livelihood, there is also the domino effect that pushes up the overall cost of living.

Deregulation and its provision on automatic price adjustment aggravated the global monopoly pricing imposed by the biggest oil transnational corporations (TNCs) in the US and Europe. The tight control over the global industry of these oil companies which include TNCs that have local units in the Philippines like Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, and Total makes oil prices artificially high whether oil price hikes are implemented or not.

Speculation in the futures market especially in recent years exacerbates the unjust and exorbitant oil prices in the world and in the Philippines. Speculators, which include investment banks and other financial institutions that do not have any role in the oil industry other than to profit from speculating on prices in futures markets, are behind the steep adjustments in global prices. The rise of oil speculation further detached global oil prices from so-called market fundamentals, and thereby further oppressing the people around the world with exorbitant oil prices. Filipinos directly bear the brunt of speculation and monopoly pricing because of deregulation, which allows oil firms to automatically adjust their prices based on movements in global price benchmarks such as Dubai crude (for crude oil) and Mean of Platts Singapore (MOPS, for refined oil). In 2008, for example, MOPS diesel jumped from $108 per barrel in January to $168 in July then fell to $62 in December. Dubai crude followed a similar trend from $87 per barrel (January) to $131 (July) and $41 (December). Meanwhile, data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) show that the supply and demand balance in 2008 was very stable. In the first quarter of 2008, global demand was 86.9 million barrels per day (mbd) versus available supply of 87.1 mbd. In the second quarter, supply fell to 86.8 mbd but so was demand which declined to 85.7 mbd. Thus, there was an even bigger surplus (supply minus demand) in the second quarter of 1.1 mbd versus 0.2 mbd in the first quarter.

Because the increases are automatic under the Oil Deregulation Law, the excessive and oppressive global prices are fully imposed on the people. Worse, the public has no way of knowing whether the price adjustments are reasonable or not even based on the supposed factors that affect local prices, namely global oil prices and the rate of foreign exchange. The people are forced to take hook, line, and sinker whatever explanation the oil firms and the Department of Energy (DOE) give for the price increases. This setup has paved the way for further abuses by the local oil companies at the expense of the people. One way is by implementing higher price hikes or lower rollbacks relative to global prices and the foreign exchange, or what is called as local overpricing. (Read here)

Global monopoly

Indeed, the biggest flaw of the deregulation policy is that it assumes that there exists a free competition among oil players in the global and local markets. As such, removing state regulation on pricing and other activities in the downstream oil sector is supposed to result to more reasonable prices that are determined by so-called market fundamentals. Automatic price adjustments supposedly quickly reflect the true price of oil based on global and local competition, with the end-consumers ultimately benefiting. But these assumptions are false.

Throughout its history, the global oil industry has always been under the domination of a few American and European transnational corporations that dictate the price of oil. These TNCs have remained in control despite the nationalization of oil supplies, the rise of national oil companies (NOCs), and the establishment of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). They have maintained such control and domination because even though the NOCs hold the largest oil reserves, the TNCs still have the stronger financial muscle and access to capital, the more advanced technological capacity and know-how, and the much wider and more sophisticated infrastructure and network worldwide. In fact, the NOCs are still compelled to partner with the TNCs for their crude oil to be refined and reach the market. To illustrate, Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest NOC and owns the biggest oil reserves at 259.4 billion barrels, have refining and marketing deals with ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil TNC. State-owned PetroChina also has partnerships with British Petroleum, Total, and Shell. The units and partners of these giant TNCs are also the dominant oil players in the Philippines.

Consequently, removing state regulation on the downstream oil industry actually further strengthened these local units of the oil TNCs. Deregulation gave them more freedom to arbitrarily impose their artificially high global monopoly price on the hapless domestic market. The Philippines is especially vulnerable because while we have one of the most oil intensive economies in the Asia, we are also one of the most import-dependent for petroleum.

Continuing monopoly control

From the onset, such global control and domination by American and European TNCs have been felt in the Philippine oil industry. As early as the 1800s, the US was already exporting petroleum products to the country. In the early 1900s, American oil giants Esso, Mobil, Texaco, and Chevron (Esso and Mobil are today’s ExxonMobil while Texaco is now part of Chevron) as well as the British/Dutch Shell had set up facilities in the Philippines. These foreign companies built the first oil station and depot in 1914 and the first oil refinery in 1951. There were attempts by some Filipino firms to build oil facilities in the late 1950s and 1960s. But these efforts fizzled out due to lack of access to technology and crude oil, which the TNCs control. Aside from the downstream, foreign companies also dominated the upstream oil industry. The first recorded domestic oil exploration was in 1896 by an American company while the first commercial oil field was developed by an Australian firm in 1977.

By the time the first Oil Deregulation Law (RA 8180) was enacted in 1996, three oil firms – all foreign-owned and part of the global network of the world’s largest oil TNCs – are dominating the downstream oil industry. They are Petron Corp., which then was 40%-owned by Saudi Aramco (Before it was nationalized in 1980, Saudi Aramco was owned by ExxonMobil and Chevron. But even after nationalization, it maintained strategic deals on refining and retailing with the oil TNCs.); Pilipinas Shell, local unit of Royal Dutch Shell; and Caltex Philippines, local unit of Chevron. One of the major objectives of deregulation was to dismantle this domination by the so-called Big Three by enticing more investors or new players to participate in the downstream oil industry.

The Oil Deregulation Law did pave the way for the entry of new players in the downstream oil industry. Latest data from the DOE show that there are now around 601 new oil players, of which 506 firms are involved in retail marketing; 66 firms in liquid fuel bulk marketing; 16 in bunkering; 9 in LPG bulk marketing; and 4 in terminalling. In 1998, there were only 22 new players that entered the downstream oil industry. This means that while the share of the Big Three fell from 95.7% in 1998 to 76.4% in 2010 (Petron, 37.8%, Shell, 27.4%; and Chevron, 11.9%) the concentration of their control over the market remained stable given the very large number of new players that account for the remaining 23.6% share. Note also that of the portion of the market controlled by the new players, more than half is accounted for by just three companies – Total (4.1%), PTT (3.5%), and Liquigaz (3.4%).

These leading new players are also some of the world’s largest oil companies – Total Philippines is the local unit of Total of France; Liquigaz is the local unit of SHV Netherlands, which is the largest LPG company in Europe; and PTT is Thailand’s national oil company. Among the new players that are Filipino-owned, the largest in terms of market share are Phoenix (2.1%) and Seaoil (1.9%). This means that 596 new players account for the remaining 7.9% of the downstream market.

Another indicator of the continuing domination of the Big Three is the number of pump stations. DOE data say that as of 2010, there are 4,114 pump stations in the country. Separate reports of the oil companies, meanwhile, show that Petron has more than 1,500 stations; Shell, more than 960; and Chevron, 850. Based on these data, the Big Three controls more than 80% of all pump stations in the Philippines.

Aside from the refilling stations, the big oil firms also control other strategic storage facilities of petroleum products and crude oil. Based on DOE figures, more than 81% of the country’s storage capacity including the depots, import/export terminals, and refineries are controlled by Petron, Shell, and Chevron. Furthermore, two companies – Petron and Shell – control 100% of the country’s refining capacity (about 64 million barrels in 2010).

Clearly, fourteen years of the Oil Deregulation Law is enough. There are pending proposals in Congress to repeal RA 8479 and replace it with a regime of effective state control over the downstream oil industry such as House Bill (HB) 4355 filed by Bayan Muna and other progressive partylist groups. Even lawmakers from various traditional political parties both in the House of Representatives (HoR) and the Senate have filed bills and resolutions calling for the repeal of RA 8479 or at least amend it. More on these proposals later. #

14 years of oil deregulation is enough! (Part 1)

Because oil is a very socially sensitive commodity, the Oil Deregulation Law has become one of the country's most contentious laws (Photo by Nino Jesus Orbeta)

On February 10 (Friday), Republic Act (RA) 8479, or more notoriously known as the Oil Deregulation Law, will mark its 14th year of implementation. The law, which was aggressively pushed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was enacted on Feb. 10, 1998 by the 10th Congress. Because oil is a very socially sensitive commodity, the ODL has become one of the most contentious laws in the country. Its constitutionality had been the subject of several petitions at the Supreme Court (SC). In the past five Congresses, many legislators have filed bills amending or repealing the ODL. The Executive has convened, since 2005, three “independent” panels to review the law, including one recently set up by the Aquino administration.

From RA 8180 to RA 8479

In fact, RA 8479 was not the original deregulation law. The original, RA 8180, was enacted on Mar. 28, 1996. But massive people’s protests greeted the passage of RA 8180. Organizations under the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) launched two people’s strikes against oil price increases. The Asian financial crunch in 1997 further inflamed the unrest. Following a massive strike in October 1997, the Supreme Court (SC) was forced to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the deregulation law. RA 8180 was finally declared as unconstitutional by the SC in a Nov. 5, 1997 decision.

According to the SC, the said law breached constitutional provisions outlined in Article XII Section 19. This provision states that “The State shall regulate or prohibit monopolies when public interest so requires. No combinations in restraint of trade or unfair competition shall be allowed.” In its decision, the SC recognized that the Philippine oil industry conceded that “operated and controlled by an oligopoly, a foreign oligopoly at that.”

The High Court further pointed out that “The much ballyhooed coming in of new players in the oil industry is quite remote considering that these prospective investors cannot fight the existing and well-established oil companies in the country today, namely Caltex, Shell, and Petron. Even if these new players will come in, they will still have no chance to compete with the said three (3) existing big oil companies considering that there is an imposition of oil tariff differential of 4% between importation of crude oil of the said oil refineries paying only 3% tariff rate for the said importation and 7% tariff rate to be paid by businessmen who have no oil refineries in the Philippines but will import finished petroleum/oil products which is (sic) being taxed with 7% tariff rates.”

However, then President Fidel V. Ramos marshaled his allies in Congress to immediately pass a replacement, correcting the unconstitutional provisions cited by the SC. The minimum inventory requirement was deleted while the import tariff rate was pegged at 3% for both crude oil and refined petroleum products. In two months since the SC junked RA 8180, Congress enacted RA 8479, which continues to be effective until today. Another petition was filed against RA 8479 arguing that price control should not be lifted because it contradicts the anti-monopoly provision of the Constitution. But in a Dec. 17, 1999 decision, the SC denied the said petition.

Role of the IMF

The passage of RA 8180 (and its replacement RA 8479) was tied to a loan of almost $1.04 billion that the Philippines contracted with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1995 under the multilateral institution’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF). The deal with the IMF actually involved six major areas covering 43 specific measures. Aside from the deregulation of the oil industry, other conditionalities included tax reform, import liberalization, financial sector reform, foreign investment liberalization, and privatization. According to Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Governor Gabriel Singson, the IMF wanted these provisions in the Oil Deregulation Law in order for the country to exit from the IMF “on a secure footing.”

Not only did the IMF push for the passage of an oil deregulation law, it also actively influenced the actual provisions that such legislation will contain. In fact, to access some $300 million in the first tranche of the EFF, as well as another $300 million in loans from the Japan Export Import Bank (JEXIM), the IMF had first to approve the then newly enacted RA 8180. (See BusinessWorld, “New oil deregulation law gets nod,” February 20, 1998) The IMF had also pushed for automatic price adjustment and elimination of any form of subsidy as among the main provisions that an oil deregulation law must contain.

The timing of full deregulation also became a contentious issue during the deliberations in Congress. The Senate and the House of Representatives were then pushing for a transition period before full deregulation takes place but the Executive was rejecting the proposal because the IMF requirement was immediate liberalization of the oil industry. To accommodate the IMF conditionality, the Ramos administration lobbied for an acceleration clause. Congress, in the end, passed RA 8479 with such clause, stated in Chapter VI Section 19, which authorizes the President to accelerate the start of full deregulation (which the law states shall start five months following the effectivity of RA 8479) except for socially-sensitive oil products (i.e. LPG, regular gasoline, and kerosene). As expected, Ramos exercised this prerogative and accelerated the implementation of full deregulation (earlier by four months) to hasten the approval of fresh loans worth $1.6 billion under the IMF’s standby credit facility. (See BusinessWorld, “Oil deregulation rushed for ‘IMF credit,’” March 16, 1998)

Continue reading here 

Prospects of Aquino’s Oil Deregulation Law review

The transport strike and people's protest last Sep. 19 underscored the message that Aquino should not pay lip service to the people’s longstanding demand to control petroleum prices. (Photo by Nino Jesus Orbeta/INQUIRER.net)

First published by The Philippine Online Chronicles

In an effort to preempt the transport groups from staging a potentially massive strike, President Benigno S. Aquino III last week held a dialog with the leaders of the transport sector. Malacañang was partly successful as only the Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide (PISTON) went ahead with the transport strike last Sep. 19 while the others backed out.

PISTON was supported by fellow progressive people’s organizations which staged mass protests in various parts of Metro Manila. Transport strikes and people’s protests were also held in various parts of Southern Luzon and Mindanao, where transportation was crippled.

Arrogant, insensitive

Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said that Malacañang is dismayed that PISTON still pushed through with the transport strike despite the dialog even as he claimed that very few passengers were affected. He also chided the transport group for opting to be part of the problem and not of the solution.

Meanwhile, Secretary Mar Roxas of the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) visited the protesters not to express sympathy but to tell them in person that the strike was “perwisyo” (nuisance) to the public. Lacierda’s and Roxas’s statements speak volumes about how the Aquino administration appreciates the problem of exorbitant oil prices and the plight of ordinary people like the jeepney drivers.

Such arrogance is supposed to be a thing of the past because the “pamumunong
manhid sa daing ng taumbayan”
supposedly ended last June 30, 2010. But like its predecessor, the Aquino administration is proving to be as arrogant and as insensitive to the legitimate grievances of the people. It is proving to be as repressive, too. The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) is reportedly reviewing the franchise of PISTON members who joined the transport strike.

All this casts doubts on the sincerity of the Aquino administration to have another look at the Oil Deregulation Law as promised by the President during the dialog with transport groups.

Task force

As Malacañang’s response to the transport strike, Roxas has announced that government has formed a task force composed of the DOTC, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to probe “questionable collaboration” among oil firms in setting prices.

“The task force will investigate how oil companies come up with market oil price, particularly how much they actually spend to import the product from oil cartels in the Middle East, transfer it via Singapore or other routes, and load the products into gasoline trucks before they reach oil gas stations,” said Roxas.

But it is unclear if the task force is the implementation of Aquino’s order to review the deregulation policy. If it is, then the review is in danger of being reduced to how the law may be improved to better monitor oil prices instead of being a full-blown
investigation of Republic Act (RA) 8479.

To be sure, an investigation of the pricing scheme of the oil companies should form an important aspect ofthe review but it should not be the only focus. The review must also seek to answer equally important issues such as whether or not the monopoly of the so-called Big Three (Petron Corporation, Pilipinas Shell, and Chevron Philippines) has been dismantled under deregulation.

These issues can only be pursued through an exhaustive review which should be open to exploring alternatives including the repeal of the Oil Deregulation Law and instituting effective state control over the oil industry.

Credible review

Furthermore, the review must immediately translate to legislation given the urgency and magnitude of the problem. As such, the review should not be left to the agencies of the Executive branch alone. Instead, it must be a joint effort of Malacañang and the Energy Committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate where there are already pending proposals on what to do with RA 8479 such as House Bill (HB) 4355.

This shall fast track the process and ensures that the results of the review will quickly translate to concrete policies, not to mention that government can even save on its meager resources. If Aquino truly wants to review the law, he should muster the support of his party mates and allies in Congress to immediately act on the pending bills.

Also, the process should be as democratic as possible and must seek the participation of people’s organizations including the transport sector, workers, farmers, consumers, women, and youth. It must also include independent experts from non-government advocacy groups of academics, researchers, economists, and scientists among others.

Otherwise, Aquino’s review order will just end up like the last review of the deregulation policy conducted in 2005. The Independent Review Committee created by Arroyo ended up dismissing all the issues raised against RA 8479 and bolstered criticisms that the initiative was nothing but a moro-moro to reaffirm the legitimacy of the much-criticized deregulation policy.

Regulation as alternative

The Aquino administration must recognize that the “proper” implementation of RA 8479 or even amending it to supposedly give the DOE more power to police the oil firms will not address the problem.

One particular contentious issue is overpricing, a persistent allegation that has long been hounding the oil firms. Any deregulation law will not have a provision on overpricing because deregulation assumes that the market and competition will set the “fair” price. But this is a fallacy especially in the case of the oil industry which since time immemorial has been dominated and controlled by the monopoly of giant companies from the US and Europe.

To curb overpricing and ensure reasonable prices at the pump, there must be a system of public hearing before any increase in prices is made. Unlike today when oil companies can automatically increase their prices – whether monthly, weekly or even daily – effective regulation will require them to justify the oil price hike up to the last centavo.

In addition, the government must also have an active role in the importation, storage, refining, and retailing of petroleum products. To effectively regulate the oil industry including the determination of prices, the public needs to know where the petroleum imports come from, how much were they bought, in what quantity, etc. – details that are hidden from the consumers under the current set-up of decentralized importation.

Centralized procurement of oil imports – even if gradually implemented based on available government resources – will help correct this defect. The government must also buy back Petron to better ensure reasonable prices and stable supply of oil products. Other key reforms include the establishment of an oil price and supply buffer fund that should cushion the impact of drastic increases in global prices on local petroleum products.

Political pressure

Is the Aquino administration ready and willing to consider these policy reforms in lieu of the Oil Deregulation Law? Aquino has already demonstrated his strong bias for neoliberal free market policies. He has earlier rejected calls for price control and junking of RA 8479 amid public clamor for substantial government intervention as pump prices skyrocketed in the first quarter of the year.

Instead, Aquino implemented the much-hyped but severely lacking P300-million Pantawid Pasada fuel subsidy. It also turned out that only P70 million has been released so far for the said program since it was launched five months ago.

In fact, even after ordering the review of RA 8479, Malacañang continued to express support for deregulation. Abigail Valte, another presidential mouthpiece, said after the dialog that “the President stressed that the idea behind the law is to espouse competition… He believes there is more room for competition.”

Indeed, reconsidering the deregulation law has never been in the agenda of the Aquino administration. It was not, for instance, included in the priority bills – even the proposals to amend RA 8479 – that Malacañang submitted to the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) during its first meeting under Aquino last March. At that time, oil prices were soaring at an alarming pace, threatening to duplicate the oil crisis in early 2008.

Aquino only ordered a review of the Oil Deregulation Law after PISTON and other transport groups threatened to stage a strike against unreasonable oil prices and the lack of state regulation. PISTON’s decision to still push through with the transport strike even after the dialog underscored the message that Aquino should not pay lip service to the people’s longstanding demand to control petroleum prices.

It also serves as a reminder that the powers-that-be will not act on pro-people reforms without unrelenting pressure from the streets. For Aquino’s review order of the deregulation policy to benefit the people, the people must keep on the pressure. #