Proper fuel storage needed to trump SMS hoaxes

It has become apparent that even a minor thing, such as an SMS, can cause severe instability in the country’s petroleum sector, if the Government does not give priority to swiftly focusing its attention on ensuring fuel security. A fuel crisis is capable of having an immediate and direct impact on the economy of the country as well as the daily routine of people.

It has become apparent that even a minor thing, such as an SMS, can cause severe instability in the country’s petroleum sector, if the Government does not give priority to swiftly focusing its attention on ensuring fuel security. A fuel crisis is capable of having an immediate and direct impact on the economy of the country as well as the daily routine of people.

However, if the country has the ability to prepare storage facilities, sufficient to store fuel stocks required for the country for a period of three months, an SMS would not be enough to cause panic. Similarly, certain factions would not be allowed to achieve their own hidden agendas by causing chaos among people through an SMS.

We say this because, nine days after the fuel crisis, which began on 3 November bringing the country to a virtual standstill for almost a week, ended, another SMS went out on 19 November night warning of another fuel crisis in the offing.

The next day, Monday (20 November) Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe answered summons, issued by the Presidential Commission probing the Treasury Bonds issue to clarify certain issues, where his name had cropped during the Commission’s sittings. One could fathom that the SMS of the previous day was a strategy aimed at creating a false petroleum crisis to divert attention away from the Premier’s scheduled appearance before the Commission.

However, this SMS failed to have such a huge impact on the country, as the initial one, since the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) already had adequate stocks of fuel. But, even while there were sufficient stocks in the country, it was apparent that whoever sent that SMS only caused Minister of Petroleum Development Arjuna Ranatunga to lose his patience. This became clear when the administration of the CPC lodged a complaint, on Monday 20, with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) calling for an investigation into this SMS.

Serious suspicions

At a media briefing last Monday, the Minister said that he has serious suspicions about a procedure that the SMS is attempting to create. This is not the first time the Minister made this accusation. Another accusation made by the Minister is that, by pointing out that the CPC, which has an 84% market share, is unable to supply the fuel requirements of the country, an attempt is being made by certain factions in the Government to privatize the petroleum sector. Due to a ship carrying substandard petrol, for the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC), arriving on 17 October, being rejected, a false rumour was spread across the country on 3 November, by persons with hidden agendas, the Minister claimed.

However, the reason for the SMS on 19 November (Sunday), the Secretary to the Ministry Upali Marasinghe said, was because a petrol shed in Kandy had run out of stocks.

Meanwhile, last week, a fuel station belonging to LIOC in Dambulla had supplied petrol mixed with kerosene oil to consumers. A group of consumers there had claimed that the CPC should be held responsible for that. This incident had been reported in the backdrop, where, during the previous week, a racket where kerosene was being added into petrol in a bowser belonging to the LIOC, had been revealed. “We informed LIOC in writing last Thursday to carry out a formal investigation into the Dambulla incident,” the Ministry Secretary said.

If not for the SMS sent on 3 November, with the LIOC fuel ship being rejected on 17 October, authorities have pointed out that there would have been adequate stocks of petrol until 9 November night. Usually, when any crisis occurs in Sri Lanka, people connected tend to pass the ball to each other. However, during the fuel crisis which took place on 3 November, the Minister, the Secretary to the Ministry, top officials of the CPC, as well as most amazingly Trade Unions took the same stance. Even though fuel distribution was carried out with proper management and without any crisis from 17 October, this system had come to a halt due to the SMS sent on 3 November. This was emphasized by all of them. They all pointed out that the reason for the crisis was the SMS. They also said that if the government wanted to find out from where the SMS had originated, it would have been an extremely simple task. They also claimed, in one voice, that the LIOC was to blame for the crisis. Nevertheless the LIOC has strongly rejected this accusation.

Meanwhile, CPC officials and Trade Unions claimed that the report of the Dr. Sarath Amunugama Cabinet Sub-Committee, which was appointed to look into the fuel crisis, had not focused attention on any of the facts. Instead, it had stated that since CPC officials had not acted to maintain adequate fuel stocks, this crisis had erupted.

Long standing issue

However, Secretary to the Ministry, Upali Marasinghe pointed out that the lack of fuel storage facilities was not something that occurred during the past few months. He emphasized that the reason was because the development of infrastructure facilities, required for fuel security in the country, had not been carried out during the past 10-15 years.

CPC officials have for a long time been saying that the modernization of the Sapugaskanda Oil Refinery, constructed in 1969, was essential and the almost 80-year-old fuel transportation system via pipes should be renovated. They also insist that a new complex of tanks is required to store fuel. However, officials as well Trade Unions claim that the Government is not addressing any of these issues.

The capacity of the petrol storage tanks, owned by the CPC, is approximately 80,000 metric tons. This quantity is sufficient only for 25 days. Since care has to be taken when pumping fuel through this system, it takes many hours. If fuel is pumped at speed, there is a possibility of the pipes bursting. Such instances have been experienced on a few occasions in the past. Only 700 metric tons of fuel can be pumped per hour from Muthurajawela. Also, only 220 metric tons of fuel can be pumped from the Dolphin Terminal at the Colombo Port. The Ministry Secretary pointed out that in other countries, based on modern technology, the speed of pumping fuel is very much greater. As a result, however, many ships may arrive, the filling of oil tanks depends on the speed fuel is being pumped. Since the speed of pumping fuel is less, fuel ships have to remain at the Jetty for longer. Then demurrage has to be paid.

“By modernizing the Sapugaskanda Oil Refinery, the foreign exchange we spend on refined oil can be saved. Modernizing Sapugaskanda, obtaining new fuel storage tanks and constructing a new pipeline for transporting fuel is a national requirement. It is only through this that fuel security in the country can be ensured,” the Ministry Secretary stressed.

Accordingly, what should be stressed is that a base should be built so that the petroleum sector in the country cannot be wrecked in a moment, through SMSs or as authorities say by the LIOC or certain other factions. This is the responsibility of the Government. However, the problem is whether the Government has at the moment identified the national needs which should be given priority. It is unfortunate that the Government which is embracing a dream of high ways does not realize that the future of the Sri Lanka depends not on high ways but on the fuel security of country.

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