Another day, another fuel price story.
The news late yesterday that European Union anti-trust regulators had raided offices of energy giants BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Norway’s Statoil firmly took the spotlight off the pricing of petrol and diesel at motorway service stations and placed it further up the supply chain, looking at allegations of oil price fixing going back more than a decade.
In theory, this was an area which the Office of Fair Trading in the UK should have considered as part of the terms of reference in its call for evidence into the road fuel market, the results of which were published earlier this year.
In fact the OFT report did pass comment on the matter, but only briefly:
“We also asked for information on whether speculation or manipulation of oil spot and futures markets or inaccurate oil or wholesale road fuel price reporting could be leading to higher pump prices. While these issues could potentially raise serious concerns, we have not received any credible evidence to suggest that such concerns are arising and therefore do not propose to carry out any further investigation at this time.”
And this is the nub of the matter. Given that the oil industry is so fiendishly complex, involving billions of dollars, millions of trades, hundreds of thousands of people and scores of countries, it is, in short, an opaque operation, at least to the outsider. Trying to elicit information and ‘evidence’ into its finer workings are no small matters. Suspicion of wrong-doing or manipulation is one thing, but gaining proof of misdemeanour is quite another. And of course we do not know whether these companies have actually done anything wrong – let us not forget that oil firms are not charities. They invest huge sums of money in what they do and rightly expect a return on that investment.
But that return can only come from activity within the rule of law. And it is imperative that those who enforce the rules fully understand what is happening. If nothing else this investigation should provide some transparency into this area of business and show companies that the regulators are on top of their game. It might also – assuming nothing untoward is going on – rebuild some trust between motorists and the firms which supply the fuel they fill up with.
The OFT’s January report concluded:
“Overall, on the basis of the evidence collected, it appears that competition in the UK road fuels sector is working relatively effectively. The significant rises in petrol and diesel prices that have occurred over the past 10 years have largely been caused by higher crude oil prices and increases in taxation. We have not found any evidence that competition problems have led to increases in pump prices and the margins being made by UK refiners, wholesalers and retailers do not appear to have contributed as significantly to increases in pump prices.”
Yet the reassurance that pump prices are the subject of competitive retail pricing will be of little reassurance to millions of drivers if the underlying components of those prices – the cost of oil, but also tax – are excessive and, potentially far worse, illegally inflated.
Robert Halfon MP said this morning:
“Last year, in a debate that I pressed for, Parliament voted unanimously for an investigation into the oil market. These latest allegations underline why that must happen urgently in the UK. High oil prices are crushing families across Britain. Motorists are being taken for a very expensive ride.”
He, and others like Fair Fuel UK and the RAC, are right. There needs to be more investigation, even if only to offer reassurance. Perhaps this move by the EU – and for all the bad press Europe is getting at the moment there will be few who will complain of this continental intervention – will galvanise those at the OFT to reconsider their earlier conclusions, though it is would seem likely that action this side of the Channel will very depend on action on the other side.