Dáil Éireann - Volume 313 - 03 April, 1979

Adjournment Debate. - Oil Supplies.

Mr. Tully: After Question Time today I submitted a question for immediate answer and the Ceann Comhairle said that he had disallowed the Private Notice Question as it did not satisfy the criteria of urgency under Standing Orders. I asked the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy if he will state why, in view of his recent statement on oil supplies, filling stations in the country have had to close at 6 o'clock each day and all day on Saturday and Sunday while customers are rationed to an inadequate supply of petrol even when the stations are open, and if he is also aware that supplies of fuel oil are being refused to domestic customers, schools and farmers and if it is his opinion [1054] that all this is being caused by the oil companies refusing to release normal supplies pending substantial price increases. I had to accept the ruling of the Ceann Comhairle that this was not a matter of urgency, but if the Minister responsible or the Ceann Comhairle would come with me to the area where I live or anywhere else they would soon find out how urgent the matter is.

Last week quite a number of people told me they were rationed to £2 or £3 worth of petrol and the managers of the petrol stations said they had not enough petrol to meet the demand. They suggested they would make a register of customers and do their best to ensure that they got petrol. I understand that greedy people who had very little else to do went around from station to station filling their tanks with whatever petrol they could get. A petrol attendant told me yesterday about a man who kicked up a row when told that as he was a stranger he could only have £1 worth of petrol and it then transpired that the tank could only take 57p worth of petrol. Such people cause trouble for themselves and everybody else and I am not very much interested in them.

I am interested in the situation which has been created by the Minister responsible for this Department stating on a number of occasions reported on radio, television and in the newspapers that there is no real shortage of petrol and that if everybody bought normally everything would be all right. His wonderful solution was the proposition that a restrictive sales order might be introduced by the Government and he is considering making an order to compel garages to sell a minimum of £5 worth of petrol at a time. This was reported in the Evening Press on 2 April 1979.

For some reason petrol is not being sent out to petrol stations. It is my opinion that the oil companies are hoarding a large amount of petrol. If we are to believe the CSO, as I suppose we must, twice as much petrol was imported last month as in the previous month and it would appear that very large supplies of petrol are being held in the country. I would ask the Minister to confirm or deny that this is because a substantial [1055] price rise is pending and people want to make more millions on top of the many millions they have made on petrol supplies during the past few years.

I usually fill the petrol tank in my car on Saturday afternoon and top it up on Monday or Tuesday. I use £13 or £14 worth of petrol per week in the course of my work as a Member of this House. Last Saturday I called to the garage as usual at 2.30 and discovered that it was closed. On making inquiries I discovered that it had been closed all day and would not open again until Monday. I went to some other stations and it was explained to me that they had to ensure that their customers got a supply of petrol. I met numerous people along the way who had the same story. I ask the Minister to say whether there is a shortage of petrol. If there is, why not ration it to ensure that everybody gets a fair share? Why try to pass the buck to petrol stations, particularly to the attendants who have the almost impossible job of dealing with people? The Minister should state categorically whether there is a shortage of petrol. If so, will arrangements be made to ration petrol? If there is not a shortage, will the Minister use the power of this House to ensure that petrol companies are not allowed to hold on to vast supplies of petrol in order to make a quick buck when the price rise comes?

I have spoken to a number of proprietors of petrol stations and many of them have not received supplies for a fortnight. When they contact the petrol companies they are told the petrol will be sent out, but it does not come. I do not want to make a party political issue of this. The problem affects everybody, but particularly those who are forced to use cars in going to and from work or use them in the course of their work. The suggestion that people should have to buy £5 worth of petrol is ridiculous. It is even more ridiculous that a Minister should state that there is not a grave shortage of petrol while the petrol is simply not available. If the petrol is available, why is it not being distributed in the normal way? Is there anything the Minister is prepared to do to ensure that the country does not grind to a halt [1056] because of the bungling of somebody in the Department or in the oil companies?

I know the Minister made the comment that precedence should be given to hospitals and those requiring oil for industry. I will not quarrel with that. I understand that behind the scenes a far more definite instruction was given and the position is that fuel oil is not to be issued for domestic purposes or for the heating of schools. In fact, some old folks' homes have found it impossible to get fuel oil. The man who buys a load and delivers it in my own area tells me that he will not get his supply and may go back to the horse and cart if he is to continue in business. He is only one of many. Farmers may get only 100 gallons of oil when they formerly got 500 gallons, although they will use that amount in less than two days in doing necessary work in this fine weather. If there is a shortage of oil let us be told about it and let it be explained. Who will get the oil and when will they get it? Is it necessary to introduce a rationing system? Rumour has led to the development of a black market in fuel oil. I would hate to see the situation arise that arose during the war years where one could get anything one wanted for a huge price. This should not be allowed.

Everybody will understand if the Minister comes forward and sets out the position. Simply to say at a dinner that there is no shortage and try to blame somebody else is not good enough. The Minister must come out in the open and tell us what he knows about this. It will be no reflection on the Government if there is an oil shortage due to circumstances outside their control. I know the problems; I was a Member of the Government during the last severe shortage of oil and I know what steps must be taken to ensure that industry, farming and so on can be carried on. Nobody will blame the Government for a fault that is not theirs, they will only blame the Government if the Minister continues to say that there is no shortage and blames somebody else for the fact that oil cannot be got. Will the Minister of State let us have a plain statement of the situation if she can? If not, will she ask the Minister to go on television and [1057] make a statement setting out the exact position? Do not let us continue in the present situation where we do not know whether or not we are being conned by the petrol stations, the petrol companies, the Minister or the Government. The Minister is reported in the Evening Press on 22 March 1979 as saying that there will be no petrol rationing, that there was no need for petrol rationing, that there is plenty to go around.

I asked for this question to be raised because I found it difficult to get petrol. In a town near where I live two petrol stations have been closed for the last fortnight because they cannot get a supply of petrol. Somebody is telling lies, and the only way to find out who is for those who are directly responsible to the House to make a statement which can be understood by everybody. I would be glad for the information I am seeking.

Minister of State at the Department of Industry, Commerce and Energy (Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn): It is the responsibility of the oil companies to ensure that in the light of the overall oil supply situation Ireland gets a fair share of available supplies. In the present situation this amounts to 95 per cent of our current requirements across the board. The oil companies have been left in no doubt by the Minister that it is their primary duty to meet our supply requirements up to the 95 per cent level of demand. My Department receive regular detailed reports on the reserve stocks which oil companies are obliged to hold under regulations which implement EEC directives on the maintenance of such stocks. In accordance with the provisions of these regulations the companies must specify separately their stocks of the various oils, whether it is motor spirit, middle distillate or residual fuel oil.

The Minister when addressing a conference or a dinner at the weekend, referred at some length to the imaginary crisis which had been reached in regard to our oil supplies. The Minister urged reporters and members of the press and through them people throughout the country not to react to an artificial situation and not to create panic, in other [1058] words, not to go out panic buying or hoarding. The Minister said at that gathering, that a sensational type of comment or speculative comment can lead to panic buying and to artificial shortages.

This evening Deputy Tully stated that he did not want to make a political issue out of this matter nor did he want to create a panic situation. The Deputy has done a tremendous job for people who wish to create a panic situation by his statement here tonight. It was a mainly political statement not inclined to be helpful to the Minister or to the oil companies and definitely not to the consumer who may be really worried about the situation. Speculative comment has led to panic buying and artificial shortages in the world spot markets for crude oil and oil products. The Minister said at the weekend that he did not want to see this happen at local petrol stations, that there is no need for it, but that despite his recent assurances it seemed that some motorists were filling up their cars almost daily. If other motorists on the road, including Deputy Tully, were to sheepishly follow this type of behaviour the end result would be the movement of petrol stocks from the pumps to the road, in other words from the tanks in our petrol stations to car tanks on the road or in garages. The Minister also said that queues, artificial shortages and considerable destruction to the economy and to the individual motorist would follow if this happeneed. The Minister also said that he knew and all of us would agree, that most motorists would adopt a sensible approach to this supply situation by using their cars economically, by driving at reasonable speed and by planning their journeys, and that in this way they would help to meet the needs of the situation as far as petrol is concerned.

Deputy Tully mentioned that the shortage to petrol stations and distributors throughout the country was an artificial shortage created by the petrol companies who were anxiously awaiting a huge increase in petrol prices and were therefore hoarding on the basis that the Minister would give in in the case of a crisis situation occurring. In his Limerick speech the Minister also said that he had been under pressure to let oil [1059] prices rise and had been told that plenty of oil is available if one is willing to pay premium prices. The Minister said that he would not acquisce to such pressure without a clear demonstration of the facts of the case being placed at his disposal, that some of these facts seldom emerge in the course of a public debate on oil prices, that the much publicised Rotterdam market and other spot markets accounted for as little as 5 per cent of the world's oil trade, that the major part of the world's oil business which some estimates put at 65 per cent was carried out on a contract basis and that this business was insulated from the worst excesses of rising spot market prices and often indirectly benefited from such movements. The Minister also said that it should be remembered that some oil companies reported huge increases in profits when prices quadrupled in later 1973 and early 1974 following the oil embargo. Finally he said:

In truth I cannot allow the question of prices to dictate the availability of supplies and my Department have informed the oil companies that it is clearly their responsibility to ensure that Ireland gets a fair across the board allocation of oil products which should amount to about 95 per cent of our current requirements.

The best estimate available to our Department at the moment on the question of oil supplies is that the overall shortfall is of the order of 5 per cent and that the outlook is for a gradual improvement. That is not to say, however, that no problem exists in regard to supplies. There is a problem but it is a problem which is of manageable proportions, given a sensible and prudent response by the public in their usage of energy.

As regards the question raised by Deputy Tully in relation to the rationing of any oil product I think he would agree, as most sensible people would agree, that if the Minister were now to talk about rationing any oil products it would be fair to say it would cause a sort of panic situation and it would cause panic buying. Panic buying is obviously [1060] the cause of shortages rather than any actual shortage being there. There is no serious shortage at the moment as I have said and, therefore, people should not engage in panic buying. Therefore, there is no question of rationing.

Incidentally, rationing by the Minister would, of course, be a measure of last resort. It would be cumbersome and difficult to administer quickly and could be justified only if supplies fell really short of our requirements. As I said, that is not the case. If Deputy Tully has specific complaints which he wishes to have brought to my attention, or to the attention of the Minister or the Department, they will be dealt with. Let me remind him that in the past week or so, maybe ten days, many people have rung up with various complaints, whether they were ordinary members of the public, or people from our various institutions, or ordinary petrol retailers, and in each case——

Mr. Tully: How did they ring up?

Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn: They ring up the various agencies here in town who communicate with the Department by calling in to the Department. Has the Deputy a particular remark to make about that?

Mr. Tully: I made it.

Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn: A political one again I am sure.

Mr. Tully: This is a political House.

Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn: The Deputy said he wanted to be helpful to the Department, the Minister and the ordinary consumer. In what he has said he has not proved to be helpful in any way. In fact, were his comments to be reported as he made them in this House, that would lead to an instant crisis situation or an imaginary crisis situation.

Mr. Tully: The Minister does not have to buy petrol, I do.

Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn: I have been elected by the people and I have been given a responsible position to try to [1061] help consumers and to advise them on the absolute facts of the matter. That is what I am endeavouring to do, and not with the Deputy's help. I do not think there is anything else I need add. The Minister made himself perfectly clear at the weekend. Deputy Tully talked about the matter the Minister raised of bringing in a £5 minimum petrol Order. This is one of the options which would be [1062] considered by the Minister in the event of the situation becoming worse, or if he decided that a shortage situation demanded that such an order should be made. The Minister has never been found wanting in this: if action needed to be taken he has always taken it.

The Dáil adjourned at 8.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 April 1979.