BELIZE CITY–If you see a sticker at the fuel pumps of your neighborhood gas station when you pull up to put fuel in your vehicle, it merely means that the Belize Bureau of Standards (BBS) has verified that when the gas station tells you that you are getting a gallon of fuel – that’s what you’re getting, but it does not certify that you are getting the quality of fuel the gas stations claim that they are selling. It could very well be fuel of a lower grade of quality than you think.
Following reports that Venezuela would not be exporting “premium” fuel to Belize as of next February, due to the changes in the PetroCaribe regime, and assertions that regular gasoline imported from Venezuela is of a decent enough quality to be used in virtually all Belize cars, concerns over the quality of fuel that consumers are really getting at the pumps have resurfaced.
Some of those concerns have to do with allegations that distributors on the retail market are mixing the fuel sold on the market so that consumers are not really getting the quality of fuel they expect to receive.
What is being sold on the market as “premium” fuel, as categorized by the Ministry of Finance, may not really be premium grade. In the US, most consumers can choose from at least three grades of gasoline: regular (grade 87), plus (grade 89) and premium (grade 91).
Indications to our newspaper are that it is actually the plus grade fuel that is being sold in Belize as “premium” gasoline.
John Mencias, deputy chairman of Alba PetroCaribe Belize, the joint venture company which Belize and Venezuela had established to handle the PetroCaribe program, had explained last week that there is no need for drivers to be overly concerned about Venezuela’s decision to suspend the export of premium fuel to Belize. Mencias said that the premium gasoline purchased from Venezuela has a minimum anti-knock index of 89 (referring to the octane level in the fuel) but it is generally at 90.5, while the regular gasoline has a minimum index of 87 – comparable to Pemex Magna purchased from Mexico, which also has an anti-knock index of 87.
According to Mencias, independent private sector tests are done when the fuel leaves Venezuela and when it docks in Belize. He told us that the quality of the fuel exported from Venezuela actually exceeds the minimum benchmarks.
We tried to get some details on the quality consumers are really getting at the pumps and found out that the Belize Bureau of Standards does not conduct routine tests to ensure that what is being sold at the pumps is the right grade of fuel. We also understand that locally produced diesel, made in Blue Creek from crude produced by Belize Natural Energy, continues to be sold on the local market, but that BBS also does not test this fuel to see if it meets quality standards.
We understand that the last such test at the pumps was done 2 to 3 years ago, when Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow experienced engine performance problems believed to have been linked with poor quality diesel.
Mr. Barrow’s woes triggered a batch of tests conducted by the BBS, which took 3 samples each from 5 gas stations in Belmopan and sent them for testing to Intertek in Guatemala. The cost of those tests amounted to US$9,000. We requested details on the results of those tests, but did have not received them. The BBS has not tested the quality of fuel sold at the pumps since that batch.
The BBS was given a special cash allocation from the Government of Belize to do the tests, because it was outside of its budget, and we understand that the Bureau can only do the proper fuel analyses in-house if a $300,000 investment is made in a gas chromatograph.
This would enable experts there to determine whether the fuel retailed on the Belize market truly meets standard specifications ascribed under ASTN or American Standards and
Testing Methods, an international quality system. BBS would be able to test not just for octane level, but also for water quantity in the fuel, which may cause serious vehicle problems.
International news reports detail problems which drivers have faced due to water seepage into fuel storage tanks at gas stations due to neglected infrastructural problems, but a report published last year in the Jerusalem Post indicated that sellers were deliberately altering the composition of the fuel they sell by adding water and sulphur.
In 2011, gas stations in Texas faced lawsuits based on allegations that they were watering down high-priced fuel to regular grade, and defrauding their customers by making false claims about the octane level of the gasoline they sold to customers.
We understand that the importer, Puma, does its own quality tests; however, when we contacted them today for information, we were directed instead to the Government of Belize.
Amandala understands that a technical committee for fuel and lubricants is being set up by the Bureau of Standards, to be chaired by Freddy Flores of Puma.
Of note is that the Belize Bureau of Standards is a government department which falls under the Ministry of Trade, and it does not have statutory authority status.
It is also noteworthy that some gas stations are owned and operated by well-connected business people who have tight connections with both the ruling and Opposition parties in Belize.
If the Belize Bureau of Standards becomes a statutory body, it would have the kind of autonomy that is needed to seek additional funding to implement a stronger monitoring regime, and it would also be able to make key decisions without having to have them vetted by Cabinet.