POSTSCRIPT / April 4, 2000 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Gov’t protects alien oil firms, but not RP farmers

THAT color front-page picture yesterday in a newspaper (not The STAR) showing a Catholic priest raising the chalice for the veneration of combat troops offering Mass after the retaking of a Muslim stronghold in Lanao is highly incendiary.

Its publication is irresponsible journalism.

The photograph unnecessarily stokes the religious undercurrent of the fighting in Mindanao that responsible sectors in society want to suppress because there is absolutely no religious color in the government campaign for peace and unity.

We think we know how to read that newspaper. And we think that it is maliciously and unkindly depicting our troops as some kind of modern-day crusaders fighting for the Cross.

The Mass actually took place all right, but truth is not enough justification for the irresponsible front-page display of that incendiary photograph.

* * *

SOME sectors want President Estrada to vacate the presidency. Or even to die in office.

Taipan Lucio Tan is seriously looking for buyers of his controlling shares in Philippine Airlines and the Philippine National Bank to ease the attacks on his person.

But what would happen to that newspaper if one morning it finds Erap Estrada and Lucio Tan suddenly gone from the public scene?

* * *

ENERGY Secretary Mario Tiaoqui is running out of arguments in his staunch opposition to the establishment of a National Oil Exchange (OilEx) that would ensure lower prices for gasoline and other finished petroleum products.

The OilEx, as proposed by Bataan Rep. Enrique T. Garcia, would handle the purchase of oil products from refineries and traders that submit the lowest bid. The Big 3 (Petron, Shell and Caltex) will have to outprice some 40 refineries and traders worldwide.

Tiaoqui cannot explain why the government does not want to protect Filipino farmers from foreign competitors dumping their cheap products here while it is zealously blocking the entry of cheaper oil products from foreign sources through the OilEx.

The Estrada administration loves moneyed oil sheiks more than it cares for poor Filipinos?

* * *

IN their desperate defense of an indefensible monopoly, the local oil cartel and its spokesmen in government resort to disinformation.

They say that the OilEx would import crude oil from whatever source, then warn that oil comes in various grades and may not always be suitable for local refineries. They want to show the impracticality of importing cheaper crude oil indiscriminately.

But the OilEx is never envisioned to import crude oil. The imagined refining problem will never occur. The OilEx will buy only finished oil products such as gasoline, diesel and cooking gas – not crude still to be refined.

* * *

USING the same false information, Tiaoqui and other defenders of the oil cartel point out that the OilEx will not work because the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) cannot be pressured by a small consumer like the Philippines into slashing its prices.

Tiaoqui glibly goes on to say that the Philippines has no choice but to buy at the high price that the OPEC demands.

But, as we have pointed out, the OilEx will not contend with the OPEC for the simple reason that it will not buy crude oil but only finished oil products. It will deal with refineries and traders of finished oil products worldwide, not the OPEC.

Tiaoqui should stop misleading the public by talking of the OPEC. The OilEx will not buy from it.

* * *

IF it is true, as Tiaoqui claims, that we have the lowest fuel price in this part of the world, then his Big 3 friends should not be afraid to join a fair, open bidding as envisioned by the OilEx proposed by Garcia.

And since the Big 3 can deliver their finished products from their refineries in Luzon, their handling charges, and therefore their bids, should be lower. That would improve their chances of winning OilEx bidding for the supply of the country’s fuel requirements.

Why are Tiaoqui and the Big 3 afraid of an international open bidding? Because they would be forced to lower their prices and see their excessive profits whittled down.

* * *

COMPETITION, and not monopoly, is good for us consumers.

Why is the government looking after the interests of the Big 3 and not the interests of the consuming public? Why is Tiaoqui on the side of the oil cartel against the people?

Many observers are asking how many million reasons there are for this betrayal of the public trust.

The only thing propping up Tiaoqui’s wobbly position is President Estrada’s concurring with his classmate and runner to the rich oil lobby.

The President earlier hailed Garcia’s OilEx proposal as the long-sought solution to the price problem plaguing his administration, but changed his mind after Tiaoqui delivered something, maybe sealed messages, from the oil cartel.

* * *

THE OilEx bounced back into the public consciousness after the Associated Press reported that a similar outfit called the Petroleum Electronic Pricing Exchange (Pepex) has been set up in the United States.

The Miami-based Pepex will bring together through its website in the Internet sellers and buyers of crude oil and oil products and expedite sales electronically. Its target buyers include governments, airlines, car rental firms and other big consumers.

The AP reported that Colombia’s national oil company, Ecopetrol, is among the entities committed to use Pepex in conducting business with its client base for two months. Pepex starts operations on May 1.

The OilEx proposed by Garcia would similarly seek bids from all sources – including the Big 3 — of refined oil products (not crude oil) and buy from the lowest bidder.

It seems that with official obstructions thrown its way, the OilEx idea has been overtaken by the Pepex.

* * *

EARLIER reports said that more than 150 of the 200 or so members of the House of Representatives have signed the Garcia bill as co-sponsors. With this, some quarters thought the passage of the measure has been assured.

Garcia knows his Congress well, but he has to be reminded of what he already knows: that there could be congressmen pretending to support the OilEx but who actually had signed up just to ensure that the oil lobby talks to them and “enlightens” them.

Garcia may want to find out also why Speaker Manuel Villar, despite his earlier encouraging remarks about speeding up consideration of the bill, has suddenly stopped in his tracks with an enigmatic smile.

* * *

THE holding action of Tiaoqui that froze official consideration of the OilEx bill has paid off.

The continued rise of fuel prices the past months was feeding consumer protests, threatening to accelerate approval of the OilEx measure. The oil cartel stalled for time as it waited for the expected higher production levels of the OPEC.

Tiaoqui and the oil cartel knew that increased OPEC production would lead to lower prices, ease pressure on consumers and dampen the agitation for the speedy establishment of the OilEx.

* * *

TIAOQUI triumphantly announced yesterday the coming of lower oil prices. The relief that his Big 3 friends have been waiting for has arrived.

He knows that we Filipinos have the habit of relaxing when we see or experience some relief.

But the possible lowering of pump prices should not lull us into thinking that the crisis is over. The increase in OPEC production and the expected lowering of prices is just part of the artificial cycle of rising and falling supply and prices.

The lowering of prices, which is just temporary, should not stop the consideration of the OilEx bill of Garcia. On the contrary, we should rush action on it before the next cyclical price increases come to swallow us.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 4, 2000)

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