Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Deficient approach to diesel racket

Express editorial logo358

Mark Fraser

 The authorities got lucky again last Sunday evening, when officers came upon 10,000 gallons of illegally stored diesel at St Helena village, near Piarco International Airport.

The police party that executed a search warrant on the site, arresting three men who were on the compound, were praised by Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine, who also credited the “collabo­rative effort of a number of Government agencies”. This is fine, but when the first findings of illegal diesel were discovered in Sea Lots in 2012, Minister Ramnarine gave the assurance a subsidy verification unit set up at the ministry, in addition to new legislation, would result in a clampdown on the trade. 

The law was duly amended, with Parliament stiffening penalties under the Finance Act of 2012, making people found guilty of “exporting petroleum products or attempting to export petroleum pro­ducts obtained from sales by retail” liable on summary conviction to a term of five years’ imprisonment, including fines ranging from $500,000 to $6 million. 

But there has been no opportunity to apply these new penalties in the two years since. Additionally, if the verification unit is doing even a basic statistical audit, it should be possible to identify buyers who are purchasing more diesel than they can sell locally or whose books do not reflect actual local sales. That data could be used to put police on the trail of these upper-end miscreants.

The core issue, of course, is the fuel subsidy. This is what makes possible high profits from the resale of dirt-cheap diesel outside this country. With no firm plan to end the subsidy, efforts must redouble against those effectively stealing from the Trinidad and Tobago Treasury. 

To this day, however, no striking example has yet been made of culprits. And this despite the fact that vessels specifically re-fitted for the illegal transport and sale of diesel have been identified. Yet their owners, somehow, have apparently escaped T&T’s not especially long arm of the law. 

In suppression of such diesel trafficking, the law enforcers’ net has yet to catch the “big fish”, or the key organisers. Sunday’s bust begs the question as to why, with previous discoveries of bunkers containing diesel to be sold illegally to foreign buyers, the police did not mount a sting operation to identify and hold the principals involved. Selling diesel, after all, is no shoestring criminal enterprise. Setting it up alone requires considerable resources, and those at the helm are the people who need to be convicted if this activity is to be stopped once and for all.

Citizens are left to hope the law enforcers who got lucky on Sunday will before long also get smart.