Oil at six-month low | Petrol at breakeven, losses continue on diesel

International oil prices have hit a six-month low, helping Indian fuel retailers breakeven on petrol but they continue to lose money on diesel – the most used fuel in the country, officials said.

The world’s best-known crude benchmark, Brent was trading at ₹94.91 per barrel on Thursday after concerns of a global recession led to it slipping to a six-month low of ₹91.51 on the previous day.

The current rates are a relief to India, which is 85% dependent on imports for meeting its oil needs.

The fall in prices has meant that fuel retailers such as Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) are now breaking even on petrol but there are some losses on diesel, officials with knowledge of the matter said.

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State-owned fuel retailers IOC, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (BPCL) and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (HPCL) have not exercised their right to adjust the retail selling price of petrol and diesel in line with the international costs for four and half months now to help the government manage runaway inflation.

At one point, they were losing ₹20-25 per litre on diesel and ₹14-18 a litre on petrol as international oil prices soared. These losses have been trimmed with the fall in oil prices.

“There are no under-recovery (losses) on petrol now. For diesel, it will take some time to reach that level,” an official said.

Relief in rates unlikely

But this is unlikely to translate into an immediate reduction in rates as oil companies will be allowed to recoup losses they had accumulated on selling fuel at below cost in the last five months, another official said.

Under-recovery on diesel is now down to ₹4-5 a litre.

IOC, BPCL and HPCL are supposed to revise the retail price of petrol and diesel daily in line with cost. But they froze rates for a record 137 days beginning November 4, 2021, just as states like Uttar Pradesh went to polls.

That freeze ended on March 22 this year and rates went up by ₹10 per litre each in just over a fortnight before a new freeze came into effect from April 7.

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Petrol currently costs ₹96.72 a litre and diesel ₹89.62 in the national capital New Delhi. This is down from ₹105.41 a litre price on April 6 for petrol and ₹96.67 a litre for diesel as the government cut excise duty to cool rates.

The ₹10 a litre increase, effected between March 22 to April 6, wasn’t sufficient to cover the cost and the new freeze meant accumulation of more losses, officials said.

Oil companies did not revise rates to help the government manage inflation which had already peaked to a multi-year high. It would have further spiked if petrol and diesel prices were increased in line with cost.

‘Good corporate citizens’

Last week in Panipat, Oil Minister Hardeep Singh Puri described the state-owned fuel retailers as “good corporate citizens” for not increasing the prices.

But the freeze meant that the three retailers post a combined net loss of ₹18,480 crore in June quarter.

Petrol was deregulated in June 2010 and diesel in November 2014. Since then, the government does not pay oil firms any subsidy to compensate them for losses they might incur on selling fuel at rates below cost.

So, the oil companies recoup losses when input costs fall, the first official explained.

Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine sent shock waves through global energy markets. Initial price spikes turned into lingering price rises as the global community imposed sanctions on Russia’s key exports. Brent was at $90.21 per barrel before the invasion and rose to a 14-year high of $140 on March 6.

Some of the heat has come out of oil markets in recent weeks on fears of a recession snipping away demand.

The basket of crude oil that India imports averaged $91.45 per barrel on Wednesday, official data showed.

It had averaged $102.97 in April, before rising to $109.51 in the following month and $116.01 in June.

Prices started to fall in July when the Indian basket averaged $105.49 a barrel. It averaged $97.19 in August.

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