PALACE HELPLESS OVER OIL PRICE HIKES  

Manila, Feb. 18,2003 -- Malacaņang has again thrown in the towel, this time admitting that it cannot do anything about successive increases in the prices of oil products from the "Big Three" Caltex, Petron and Shell and lesser industry players.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye yesterday said President Arroyo is helpless in acting on the jacked-up oil prices, which he blamed on dictates of the international market beyond the Chief Executive's control.

"The prices (of oil), of course, were being influenced by the prices in the world market," Bunye told a press briefing in the Palace.

The latest price adjustments were announced also yesterday by Petron (50 centavos per liter) and last weekend by Shell (also 50 centavos per liter).

Last week, Mrs. Arroyo said she also cannot lift a finger to help in the purchased power adjustment (PPA), a surcharge that the Lopez-owned Manila Electric Co. bills its customers monthly.

The looming US war on Iraq, which Bunye said is the primary cause of the oil price increases, has not lessened the government's resolve to assure the country of steady oil supply.

"The No. 1 commitment (of Malacaņang to the people) is to assure the availability of (oil) supply...the prices, of course, were being influenced by the prices in the world market," he noted.

For his part, Energy Secretary Vincent Perez also yesterday said the country is in a "very good shape," citing oil reserves over 70 days, or until March 2003, compared to neighboring countries such as Thailand (only over 50 days).

According to Perez, the government is expecting another 18 million barrels of oil to arrive in the country soon.

In case war erupts between the United States and Iraq, he said the Philippines had been assured of steady supply of oil by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia.

On other fronts, Department of Transportation and Communications (DoTC) Secretary Leandro Mendoza is more optimistic.

Mendoza also yesterday allayed fears that transport fares would increase, assuring the public the Arroyo administration is finding ways to prevent it.

He noted a continuous dialogue is being conducted among various groups to arrive at alternative solutions that would favor all stakeholders.

"We are now holding dialogues with various jeepneys and bus associations to tackle issues concerning them, specifically on the oil price (increases) after Shell, Caltex and Petron have again increased their petroleum prices," Mendoza said.

The DoTC chief expressed confidence a compromise will be reached, even as he acknowledged that diesel prices have already reached the maximum rate set by the transport groups.

"We have to consider that once there will be fare hike, it will also result in an increase in the prices of basic commodities. There will be a domino effect," Mendoza said, adding the Departments of Finance, Trade and Industry, Energy and the DoTC are continuously meeting in Malacaņang to address the problem.

He said housing projects for transport groups are included as part of the options being considered by the government to prevent the fare increase.

Another alternative that is being reviewed by the government is the three-percent levy on oil.

In view of the impending war of the United States against Iraq, Mendoza also assured the country has enough supply of oil.

"President Arroyo has already created a task force of which the DoTC is a member to ensure that there will be enough supply of oil in the country," he said, adding alternative sources have already been identified by the government.

In the case of the PPA, Bunye said "the depreciation of the peso against the dollar and the oil price (increases) in the international market" had rendered Mrs. Arroyo helpless.

The best the President can do, he added, is to appeal to Meralco and other power firms and independent power producers (IPPs) not to be abusive and refrain from further raising the PPA.

Mrs. Arroyo's explanation was trashed by former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and other critics.

"If you (Mrs. Arroyo) think that you are helpless to find remedy to the ever increasing PPA, you should vacate the presidential post. Our people are in dire need of help and you are there in Malacaņang supposedly to alleviate their sufferings but you failed them... It's high time for you to quit," Enrile said. (Sherwin C. Olaes and Joyce Pangco Panares, Tribune)


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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