Five questions answered on the wholesale gas price fixing allegations

Regulators are investigating claims wholesale gas prices have been manipulated by major gas companies. We answer five questions on the gas pricing fiasco.

What exactly are the allegations being made? 

Major energy companies are being accused of manipulating the wholesale price of gas in the same way banks have manipulated libor. 

Energy companies buy gas at wholesale price then sell it onto to homes and businesses. On the 26 September gas companies are alleged to have made unrealistic bids at a time when data was being collected to set the wholesale price, they area alleged to have done this in order to suit their own situation rather than making a realistic bid.

Who discovered this alleged price-fixing? 

The whistle was blown by Seth Freedman, who worked at ICIS Heren, a financial information company that publishes energy price reports.

The Guardian report that Freeman flagged up a set of suspiciously low trades he believed were designed to depress ICIS Heron’s ‘day ahead’ price on the 28th September. One trader told Freeman in regards to the range of prices quoted on the 28th September:

There's a feeling among some people that somebody's taking the piss a bit on the day-ahead index.

ICIS Heren also told the BBC it had:

Detected some unusual trading activity on the British wholesale gas market on 28 September 2012, which it reported to energy regulator Ofgem in October.

Does wholesale price manipulation affect consumer prices?

Not directly as the price is being manipulated to be lowered. Wholesale gas price makes up an average of 45 per cent of consumers bills so lowering it shouldn’t affect bills. However, it is still a damaging discovery as Freeman has explained: 

There's certainly a link. They [the power companies] are telling you: Look, in order to make our profits and cover our costs and so on, we have to give a price to retail customers which reflects the cost to us.

But if you can't trust the market at a wholesale level, it becomes a crisis of confidence. People at retail level are just thinking, "I don't trust these companies" - and it needs to be scrutinised.

What has been the response of energy providers?

The big six energy providers have all released statements denying the claims. However, some of these ‘big six’ are currently being investigated by the Financial Services Authority and Ofgem. 

What has government said?

Energy Secretary Ed Davey will make a statement in the House of Commons today, but he has already said he is extremely concerned about the allegations. 

The Treasury Secretary, Greg Clark, spoke of the seriousness of the allegations to the BBC, saying:

Any scintilla of doubt that the participants cannot be trusted has a tremendously important effect.

I think it's very straightforward. When someone breaks the law, they should be punished, and when it's as serious as this, they should be punished very severely. And it's as true for stealing through financial manipulation as it is, frankly, for breaking and entering.

Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.