I Filed An RTI And Discovered Why Premium Petrol Is India’s Biggest Loot

Posted by Avinash Tavares in Society, Staff Picks
January 8, 2018

Premium petrol has been sold in India for more than a decade. All the government-owned oil companies like Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum and Indian Oil have their own brand of premium petrol. It was launched with much hype with claims such as increasing engine performance, cleaning the engine and preventing the build-up of carbon deposits in the engine and intake system. The price of premium petrol is around ₹3 more than the price of ordinary petrol.

Like many Indians, I ride a humble scooter which gives a decent mileage. I don’t use premium petrol except whenever the petrol pump runs out of ordinary petrol. I have been suspecting that petrol station operators and maybe even oil companies create an artificial shortage of ordinary petrol in order to force consumers to buy premium petrol, either to sell idle stock or to earn more from the higher priced premium petrol. After the last time I was forced to buy premium petrol, I decided to investigate the claims made by these companies.

Premium petrol, also called high octane gasoline, refers to petrol which has additives. 87-octane gasoline, for example, is comprised of an 87% blend of iso-octane and 13% n-heptane, or a blend that is equivalent. Bharat Petroleum, the company which I investigated, has a brand we are all familiar with called Speed. Their website does not give any description of the contents but other sites claim they have ‘Speed’, ‘Speed 97’.

I filed an RTI with Bharat Petroleum. I asked them for documents to substantiate their claims which include, “Speed Fuel is enriched with special multi-functional additives (MFA) that keep your vehicle’s engine clean thereby maximizing its power and improving fuel economy. Speed also lowers vehicular emissions, ensuring reliable engine performance and a smoother drive.” Their response was, “The details of MFA or test reports substantiating the performance claims cannot be provided as it contains the information in trade secrets.”

I also asked for the details of power requirements, and pollution or effluents ie gas, liquid etc, that are generated during the manufacturing of Speed Fuel and the ‘per litre’ expenditure on manufacturing speed fuel. Their reply was, “Speed is not manufactured at the refinery; it is developed by blending special multifunctional additives with normal gasoline. Hence the power requirements, etc. are the same as that of normal gasoline.”

They refused to reveal the information regarding the manufacturing expenditure claiming it is a trade secret. They did reveal that the price of Speed for the last three years. On 1/1/16, BP sold a litre of petrol in Delhi for ₹59.5 and a litre of Speed for ₹62.53. On 31.12.17, these prices jumped to ₹70.03 and ₹73.24, respectively. There is a constant difference of around ₹3.20 between ordinary petrol and Speed.

It is shocking to know that the additives are added at the fuel supply locations. Who is responsible for quality control? How can a consumer verify if the right amount of additives are added? This, to me, opens up scope for adulteration. The fact that the actual chemicals added are hidden behind the veil of secrecy while the company makes unbelievable claims of its benefits should be sufficient for consumers to boycott Speed along with other premium fuels.

The real question is whether high octane fuel like Speed actually benefits the consumers. A comprehensive fuel evaluation study was done by the American Association of Automobiles (I & II) to determine the benefits of high octane fuel to consumers. After using industry-standard test protocols designed to evaluate vehicle performance, fuel economy, and emissions, AAA found no benefit to using premium gasoline in a vehicle that only requires regular-grade fuel.

AAA cautions drivers that premium gasoline is higher octane, not higher quality, and urged drivers to follow the owner’s manual recommendations for their vehicle’s fuel. Premium gasoline is specifically formulated to be compatible with specific types of engine designs and most vehicles cannot take advantage of the higher octane rating. The study found that US drivers waste $2.1 billion annually on premium gasoline.

As consumers, when purchasing petrol or diesel, our focus should be on high ‘quality’ and not ‘premium’. Most of the vehicles sold in India do not specifically require high octane fuel. I have no doubt that oil companies are conning us with these premium fuels which have a negligible benefit on our vehicles. Why else would they shy away from revealing any study which would substantiate their claims? These fuels were probably introduced during the time fuel prices were heavily regulated and oil companies needed another source of revenue to reduce ‘under-recoveries’.

Now that prices have been deregulated and oil companies are free to vary the price of petrol, they should stop selling these premium fuels. By not doing so, I am sure they have collected crores of rupees from consumers without offering any real benefit. The time has come for people to boycott these premium fuels till companies are forced to stop their sale and they are replaced with cleaner and better quality fuel.

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Image source: Girish Gopi/ Flickr

Note: In the sentence, ‘It is shocking to know that the additives are added at the fuel supply stations’, the word ‘stations’ has been replaced by ‘locations’, as per the response in the RTI. The error is regretted.