Thursday, February 15, 2007

Should government subsidize Oil?

This question has been puzzling me and the answer to the question "Should Indian govt. control the petrol/diesel prices" produces an answer even baffling to me. I'm a free market supporter and in general against government intervention, but I feel Indian govt is not too wrong in controling the oil prices at the moment. At the same time, I also feel we in the US are enjoying a much cheaper petrol and the government here must raise the prices by increased taxes. I'll explain my contradictory position in this article.

In India, oil prices are not directly determined by the world prices, but controlled by the government in a process called APM (Administered Price Mechanism). What this means is that periodically, based on the international prices, government would set a prices for Petrol (Gasoline), Diesel (used by trucks), Kerosene (used by poor for cooking & lighting) and LPG (used for cooking by middle class) and all the oil market companies have to fix to that price. The price is set in a way that oil companies make profits on Gasoline, break even on Diesel and losses on Kerosene & LPG, and in return get compensated by government bonds.

In an effort to curtail inflation (and score political points ahead of forthcoming elections), the government has reduced the oil prices though the oil companies are still making losses out of subsidies on Kerosen & Diesel. A lot of columnists have blasted the government, and for once I'm not going to attack the government.

In India, currently after the reduction the price for petrol (gasoline) is around Rs.50/liter ($4.18/gallon) compared to US prices of around $2.3/gallon, while Diesel costs around Rs.32/liter ($2.55/gallon) almost the same price as in the US. And India has better refineries and slightly hence lesser cost of fuel production and distribution. Thus, its not correct to say that Indian government subsidizes oil. In effect, what Indian govt does is to tax the fuel heavily and then make profits at all levels mostly going to state & provincial governments.

So, gasoline in India is not cheaper than most countries and this makes sense as India should curtail the use of more cars till the necessary infrastructure comes up, and even then it is better not to go the American way of automobilzation. High gasoline price makes sense, but very high prices can affect sectors like tourism etc. and so I believe that current prices for petrol are neither too high nor too low. And the pricing of Diesel at lower rate makes sense, because Diesel is much more efficient (40% more power compared to Petrol) and it emits just 69% as much greenhouse gases as petrol for every kilometer of ride. Thus, by encouraging the Diesel usage government is pushing more people out of the more inefficient and nasty petrol towards a shade better Diesel. Moreover, Diesel is used by trucks transporting essential items and public transportation (Trains & Buses), apart from small captive power plants. Thus, Diesel subsidization encourages a more healthier practice of relying on public transportation rather than Automobilzation a trap that America got into. Now, US is considering more sops for Diesel based cars. And, since diesel is used in core sectors, a lower price will curtail inflation in a lot of sectors.

Now, coming to the sacred cow of Kerosene & LPG the main cooking and lighting source for the poor and middle class respectively. India has a ultra low price for Kerosene almost half the cost of production and this alone leads to a loss of over $2b/year and a similiar amount in LPG. I believe that LPG prices have to be gradually increased so that it breaks even, while some efforts must be made to modify Kerosene distribution. $2b is not a big deal for trillion dollar economy and the Indian government can effectively carry on protecting the poor for a longer time from the vissicitudes of global economy. The poor spend considerable portion of their earnings on energy, food & transportation and all these are directly affected by the fuel costs, and the resulting unrest can put the economy down by tens of billions of dollars, and hence Kerosene subsidies make sense. But, distribution mechanisms must be modified so that it reaches the appropriate persons and to protect the blackmarket sale and adulteration into petrol and other fuels. This paper has proposed good methods for this problem.

Global oil prices are erratic and you cannot have mechanisms that directly reflect the global prices in a developing economy. Oil prices swing from $10 to $80 in 5 years before coming to $50 in a few months, and this could totally collapse a fledgling economy like India, if the government doesn't interefere and smoothen things out. If you calculate all the taxes that various governing bodies in India make out of oil, it could easily compensate for the various subsidies - notably in Kerosene & LPG. And, even if you have to spend a couple of billion dollars more, its worth it to keep running an economy that adds $100billion to GDP every year. And to compensate the oil majors for the loss, the government has to provide sops, though in the long run I would prefer a more simple system, where the government reduces taxes on these oil products and also take away some of the sops from the companies. The non-m0netary sops including governmental intervention and support for acquiring global oil assets and exploration of alternative fuels and efficient systems should be pursued more.

In the end, I believe that India's currently policy of keeping a higher price for gasoline and a moderate price for diesel makes sense and should be continued. While the oil companies face losses due to this, they could easily be compensated with the government bonds, which inturn can be paid from the taxes the government earns on these fuels. And LPG prices in the long run should get in par with the global market, while Kerosene subsidies should continue but mechanisms must be reformed to ensure appropriate distribution.
Regarding the situation in US, I recommend higher prices and here is a slightly older post, but still relevant to the current issue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well Our country isn't doing much to promote new fuels or provide subsidy on hybrid vehicles imported from outside. What about ethanol which can be used by most diesel engines with out major modifications. Electric cars and gas pump stations are not even given a chance and not much has been done for such infrastructures to become a common site.Well taxing heavily on fossil fuels has its pros and cons but as a government they are not many ventures to promote other alternatives.Governmet doesn’t do all that because there is too less money to flick from.