Gas ‘reforms’ show just how twisted Indian policy is

By: |
October 9, 2020 6:30 AM

Only babus could argue ‘pricing’ & ‘marketing’ freedom were distinct, and even now this doesn’t apply to everyone

What really takes the cake, of course, is the distinction between what is called ‘pricing’ and ‘marketing’ freedom.What really takes the cake, of course, is the distinction between what is called ‘pricing’ and ‘marketing’ freedom.

Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan was happy to announce the ‘natural gas marketing reforms’ that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs cleared on Wednesday, but, more than anything else, this just reinforces how twisted India’s policies are, how reforms are mostly made in a piecemeal manner; that, of course, is the main reason why they don’t deliver as much as hoped. Indeed, even after Wednesday’s reforms, over 70% of India’s natural gas production doesn’t get the benefit of the new marketing freedom given. The reason for not freeing up prices of all natural gas, as in the past, is that if gas prices rise, so will the costs of fertiliser and electricity; but unless existing producers like ONGC are able to earn more from the gas they produce, how are they going to get the resources to invest in exploring/extracting more gas? And until that happens, the bulk of India’s gas needs—right now, this is around 60%—will continue to be met through imports that cost more than locally produced gas.

What really takes the cake, of course, is the distinction between what is called ‘pricing’ and ‘marketing’ freedom. For those not well versed in bureaucratese, both mean the same thing; that firms producing natural gas are free to sell their output at the market price. Apparently not, since India has four or five types of prices. There are the ‘domestic price guidelines’—this used to be called Administered Price Mechanism (APM) earlier—and gas produced under this is sold at $1.79 per mmBtu; the costs of production, though, are significantly higher. Since keeping gas prices low dissuaded new investment, in 2016, the government raised the prices but only for new discoveries and that too, for gas produced in the deep or ultra-deep waters or high-temperature-high-pressure areas; if the gas was produced onshore, it didn’t get the higher price. In addition, there are imported prices that are around $5-7 per mmBtu. And after Wednesday’s reforms, there will be a price for gas that is, for instance, found onshore or in relatively shallow waters; this price will be market-determined.

In the past, while producers like Cairn India had ‘pricing’ freedom, they did not have ‘marketing’ freedom! This meant a Cairn could go to, say, an IOC or a Tata Power—this distinction between ‘pricing’ and ‘marketing’ freedom applies to crude oil as well—and say it wanted the market price for its natural gas, say $6-7 per mmBtu. But since Cairn was not allowed to sell to anyone—Wednesday’s reforms allow this for natural gas, not for crude oil—IOC or Tata Power would most likely turn it down and decide what price it would pay. Indeed, a report from the government’s Petroleum Pricing and Analysis Cell (PPAC) had pointed out that ONGC could earn $10 more per barrel if it could sell its crude to refineries that were more sophisticated than those of the PSUs to whom it supplies today. In the case of Cairn India, having ‘pricing’ but not ‘marketing’ freedom has meant it has to sell its crude at a lower price to not just PSUs, but even to private sector refiners like Reliance Industries.

Apart from the fact that the ‘marketing’ freedom has not been extended to crude oil—and to existing natural gas production—another policy that makes little sense is the 20% ad valorem cess applied on crude oil. The latest CAG report talks of how the government has collected Rs 1.2 lakh crore under the Oil Industry Development Board cess so far, but none of this has been used for the development of the sector. If prime minister Modi really wants India’s petroleum imports to fall from 77% in FY14 to 67% in FY22—it has risen in the last six years thanks to unfriendly government policy—he needs to ensure the sector is completely freed instead of today’s piecemeal changes, and that includes a substantial reduction in the government levies on the sector.

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