Centralized Procurement of Imported Oil: A Doable Alternative to Reduce Prices

One of Ibon’s proposals is a system of centralized procurement of imported crude oil and refined oil products, a necessary step to ensure the steady supply of reasonably priced petroleum in the country.

By Arnold Padilla
Ibon Features

It has now become obvious that the Arroyo administration does not have a credible program to lessen the impact of high oil prices on the domestic economy and the people’s livelihood. Pump prices continue to soar in spite of the downward trend in the price of Dubai crude and improvement in the foreign exchange in August to October. Worse, the government will impose the value added tax (VAT) on petroleum products starting November that will further push up the pump prices. The much-publicized energy conservation program of the Department of Energy (DOE) has failed to bring immediate relief for the public since the most urgent problem is not the over-consumption of oil but the exorbitant price.

Independent think-tank Ibon Foundation has been staunchly advocating for the repeal of Republic Act (RA) 8479 or the Downstream Oil Industry Deregulation Act of 1998 to allow the government to control and regulate the activities of the oil companies operating in the Philippines. One of our proposals is the implementation of a system of centralized procurement of imported crude oil and petroleum products to minimize the effects of the cartel operation of big foreign oil companies on prices.


Almost 9 out of every 10 liters of oil sold in the Philippine market come from the Big Three, a group of companies that have their own oil fields abroad as well as their own global network of pipelines, tankers, depots, refineries and retail stations. Such commanding position has allowed Shell, Caltex and Petron to impose exorbitant prices on the domestic oil market. Deregulation, or the lack of substantial government intervention in the oil industry, has given these companies more room to manipulate the price of petroleum at the expense of the consumers and the economy. A system of centralized procurement of imported crude oil and refined oil products is therefore necessary to ensure the steady supply of reasonably priced petroleum in the country.

Under centralized procurement, the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) becomes the sole importer of crude oil and refined petroleum products, which refiners and retailers operating in the country will have to purchase from. Consequently, PNOC must have substantial control over the country’s oil storage facilities. There are around 119 oil depots nationwide, and PNOC can at first control the most strategic among these storage facilities such as the Subic Bay terminal (the largest in the country with a storage capacity of 3 million barrels), which at present is being operated by a joint venture of US-based Coastal Corporation and the Petroleum Authority of Thailand. At the same time, PNOC can also utilize Petron’s storage facilities and lease privately-owned depots to meet its storage requirements.

Gradual centralization

For example, under a five-year program, PNOC would import on the first year a volume that is equivalent to 20 percent of the country’s total import volume in the previous year. By the second year of its program, PNOC would import 40 percent of the import volume in the preceding year and so forth until it reaches the 100 percent level by the fifth year. By the time PNOC is already procuring 100 percent of the previous year’s volume, its imports may be higher or lower than the actual need of the country. Under this situation, the surplus imports will be stored as a buffer supply of PNOC in case of any shortage or extremely high global prices, while it will have to withdraw from the said buffer and/or increase its imports to bridge the gap between its imports and actual domestic need.

Based on the annual growth average in volume (-2%) and value (18%) of oil imports from 1998 to 2004, Ibon estimated that by 2006, under a gradual centralized procurement program spread over a five-year period, the government would have to import 24.7 million barrels of oil worth $1.2 billion. By 2010, the volume would reach 113.9 million barrels (or 100 percent of the 2009’s estimated total imports) worth around $11.2 billion. The cost is expected to be lower as government negotiates for special terms and arrangements with potential suppliers.

The government can use its earnings from Petron and the specific taxes imposed on petroleum products to partly finance PNOC’s centralized procurement activity. From 1998 to 2003, collection from specific oil taxes averaged P24.9 billion while government’s earnings from its 40 percent-equity in Petron averaged P820 million during the same period. Additional funds may also be sourced from royalties and taxes that the government earns from petroleum exploration and production, and government revenues from the corporate income tax being collected from the oil companies. In Malampaya alone, for instance, the government is expected to earn $400-500 million a year in royalties.

Supply contracts

As an importer, the government does not have to impose a tariff or duty on its own oil imports even as it continues to charge such tax on private importers (i.e. prior to full centralized procurement). With the government as a major (and eventually exclusive) importer of oil and a leading refiner and distributor (through a 100 percent state-owned Petron) at the same time, ordinary consumers as well as industrial users of petroleum will be assured of a more reasonable price of oil. This will also give the minor Filipino oil firms the leverage they need to be able to effectively vie for the local market against the transnational corporations (TNCs). Meanwhile, the country will be able to diversify its import sources considering that at present, two countries– Saudi Arabia and Iran– already account for more than 85 percent of total crude oil imports that endangers our oil supply security.

In addition, the government can utilize various means of procuring imported petroleum unlike the current system wherein the local units of TNCs are being supplied by their own mother units therefore making oil artificially expensive through transfer pricing (i.e. the practice of bloating the price of a product as it is being transferred from one unit to another unit of the same TNC until it reaches the end-consumer). PNOC, for instance, can bid out supply contracts to prospective exporters of crude oil and refined petroleum products, particularly to state-owned oil companies from oil-producing countries, to be able to purchase the cheapest petroleum.

However, when looking for potential suppliers, the Philippine government must be cautious in dealing with these state-owned companies since some of them have strategic linkages with the oil TNCs and therefore collaborate with them. Saudi Aramco, which controls 40 percent of Petron, for instance, has refining and distribution arrangements with oil giants Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil. Priority must be given to state-owned companies that oil TNCs have relatively less influence such as the PDVSA of Venezuela.

Non-traditional trade

Another option is for the Philippine government to pursue a bilateral agreement with the national government of oil-producing countries. As an official pact between sovereign states, the Philippines can push for special terms in exchange for equally favorable concessions to the exporting country. One example that the national government must seriously study is the bilateral deal between Venezuela and Cuba where the former supplies the latter with 100,000 barrels a day of subsidized oil. In return, Venezuela receives medical help from more than 17,000 Cuban doctors and dentists stationed in Venezuela.

Further, PNOC can also consider a system of commodity swap, which is a trade practice where parties involve swap products instead of buying each other’s exports with foreign exchange. The Philippines can consider this scheme in order to minimize the impact of the fluctuations in the US dollar and peso exchange rate on the price of oil and to reduce the pressure of high global oil prices on the country’s dollar reserves.

At present, of the 16 biggest crude oil exporters in the world, the Philippines sources its crude oil imports from seven countries but five of them only account for 14 percent while the rest come from Saudi Arabia (51 percent) and Iran (35 percent). On the other hand, the country exported a total value of $3.1 billion to 11 of these countries, but with Malaysia alone covering more than 80 percent of the amount. The country has no trade relations (for petroleum or other commodities) with major crude oil exporting countries Algeria, Iraq, Libya, and Kazakhstan which have a combined export capacity of 5.6 million barrels per day.

The main imports of these countries include agriculture, food and consumer goods, which the Philippine government has already been promoting for exports. All this shows that the country has a lot of trade opportunities to explore if it would look for possible commodity swap partners. Aside from commodity swap, the government can also negotiate for a bilateral agreement wherein the country would purchase petroleum imports using the Philippine peso, which the oil exporting country can use in the future to pay for their imports from the Philippines. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) may be tasked to conduct studies on which petroleum exporting countries would such arrangements be most feasible.

Other reform measures

Centralized procurement of imported oil should be complemented by other important reform measures that will give the government more authority to intervene in the oil industry so as to make certain that the people have a secure supply of reasonably priced petroleum. De-privatizing Petron, improving the local refining capacity, establishing a buffer fund, and strictly regulating pump price adjustments are some of the urgent reforms that the industry needs today to cushion the impact of frequent and drastic oil price hikes on the economy and the people. Parallel to the efforts to regulate the downstream oil industry should be efforts to institute important policy changes in the upstream level of the industry. The Service Contract system, like the Malampaya project, should be abolished and replaced with a system that will uphold the constitutional guarantee of full State control and supervision of the country’s petroleum resources for the sake of national interest.

But these reforms should not substitute for the strategic objective to nationalize the entire oil industry. Oil is too important a commodity that any government seriously pushing for industrialization cannot risk to completely put in the hands of foreign corporations whose preoccupation is to profit without regard to the overall economic development of the country. To achieve this, a major overhaul of the national economic framework that is too dependent on foreign technology and capital, must first be initiated. In the meantime, the executive and legislative branches of the government have the doable option to regulate the various aspects of the industry, through centralized procurement and other reforms, even as it allows the participation of foreign corporations. (Bulatlat.com)

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