Big business in bad gas
When Petrojam and Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) officers do testing in the field, as they are now doing, they will be expected to determine if gasolene being delivered to the unsuspecting public is within specifications for characteristics which they do not usually examine.
Investigations by Sunday Business indicate that the problem may be widespread and involve issues with the quality of gasolene imported into Jamaica by some players other than Petrojam.
According to an industry source who wishes to remain anonymous, the problem of 'bad' or 'off spec' gasolene first surfaced in late 2014 to early 2015, when it was noticed that the pumps at some gas stations were unable to dispense fuel from their underground storage facilities.
"The pumps kept suffering from cavitation, which resulted in premature failure," according to the source.
Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell gave instructions to Petrojam and the Jamaica Bureau of Standards last week to test petrol dispensed by all service stations across Jamaica. This followed an emergency meeting with industry players, including marketing companies, service station operators (retailers), BSJ, and the Consumer Affairs Commission. Sunday Business understands that other industry players, including car dealers, were also in attendance. The meeting was called to address complaints from some motorists that substandard petrol was being sold at some petrol stations, and the use of this bad gas resulted in engine damage.
One very likely cause of the problem, the source outlined, was the importation of 'off-spec' gas that had a high Reid Volatility Pressure (RVP) reading. Gas that is suitable for the local market, which experiences summer all year round, should
have an RVP of between 7.85-9 psi (pounds per square inch).
The BSJ does not test for RVP when monitoring gas stations. In a December 10, 2015 response to questions from Sunday Business, Marketing and Public Relations Manager Garfield Dixon said no 'off-spec' was detected in the petroleum trade. He said the BSJ does not test for the particular specification of RVP. He also said that the question of 'off-spec' gas for RVP was news to them, but they would work on it.
"This is the first time that this matter has been brought to the Bureau of Standards Jamaica's attention, hence, we will commence an investigation now that we are alerted," Dixon said.
Our source scoffed at the idea relayed to Sunday Business that there was no off-spec gas in the trade. "This off-spec gas caused the shutdown of at least one service station that I personally know of," the source said, noting that the affected service station was located on the outskirts of Spanish Town, St Catherine. It was closed for two weeks when it was discovered that the station's pumps were unable to dispense any gas that was recently delivered, leading to the proprietor shelling out more than $800 000 to correct the problem.
President of the Jamaica Gasolene Retailers Association Leonard Green would only confirm that the association had acted on behalf of the affected station, but declined to name the location.
"Yes, we represented the affected dealer, who wanted compensation for the lost business, but I am not at liberty to say who or where," Green said.
Information reaching Sunday Business is that the RVP for the gas coming out of the station in question was 11 psi, well above what is acceptable. Gas with such specifications is more suitable for winter conditions and could cause problems with Jamaican pumps at service stations and in motor vehicles. Such problems are now showing up, with motorists complaining of engine troubles.
At least one major car dealer reported an incidence of engine and fuel pump damage damage caused by the use of substandard petrol, while the Consumer Affairs Commission confirmed a "few complaints" in recent weeks. The problem appears to be growing as at least one dealer in high-end motor vehicles had to attend to no less than eight cars with fuel pump and engine failures.
Sunday Business was shown samples of gasolene taken from various petrol stations. One sample had a brown-coloured substance floating on top. The source said the substance was identified as diesel fuel. "We've seen several instances of this kind of contamination," he said. There were also other samples with various unidentified contaminants. He said the unknown contaminants can be substances such as acetone, kerosene and substandard gasolene, such as off-spec 90 octane gasolene being sold as 87 octane. The source said the sale of contaminated gasolene by some industry players is big business, and the contaminants used are usually stolen or otherwise acquired cheaply.
For the time being, the energy ministry feels the incidence appeared not to be widespread. Paulwell, however, wants the problem to be nipped in the bud. "Petrol is a very volatile commodity and we must do all we can to protect the integrity of the trade. With respect to the legal importation of petrol, we must ensure its quality from ship to pump, while every effort must be made to stamp out illicit importation of the product," he emphasized.
State minister in the energy ministry, Julian Robinson, is leading a team of regulators and industry stakeholders to do more investigations. They will examine incidence; the protocols and regulations governing the petroleum trade, including the importation, transportation and quality control of the product, and make recommendations for effective monitoring and enforcement.
The report will inform regulatory changes designed to plug any loopholes.