Review finds ’cause for concern’ in the growing gap between price of crude oil and wholesale price when it leaves refineries

A review of competition in the road fuel market has found cause for concern in the growing gap between the price of crude oil when it enters refineries, and the wholesale price when it leaves refineries as petrol or diesel.

The urgent review, requested by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng last month and sent to the UK government yesterday (7 July), has today been published in full.

The report finds that:

  • The main drivers of increased road fuel prices are: the rising cost of crude oil; and a growing gap between the crude oil price and the wholesale price of petrol and diesel – the so-called ‘refining spread’.
  • The ‘refining spread’ tripled in the last year, growing from 10p to nearly 35p per litre.
  • Over the same period, the so-called ‘retailer spread’ (the difference between the wholesale price and the price charged to motorists) fluctuated but remained about 10p per litre on average.
  • On the whole the fuel duty cut appears to have been implemented, with the largest fuel retailers doing so immediately and others more gradually.
  • There are significant differences in price between many rural and urban areas.

In light of some of the concerns found and the urgency of the situation, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has today launched a market study that will examine the road fuel market in more depth, making full use of its compulsory information gathering powers. An interim update will be published in the autumn.

The CMA was also asked by the UK government to advise on possible measures “to increase the transparency that consumers have over retail prices”. The review sets out how an open data scheme could help consumers more easily access and compare local pump price information, and create new commercial opportunities for tech developers. There may also be merit in providing more information about pump prices on motorways.

Sarah Cardell, CMA General Counsel, said: “The recent rises in pump prices are a major worry for millions of drivers. While there is no escaping the global pressures pushing up fuel prices, the growing gap between the oil price, and the wholesale price of petrol and diesel, is a cause for concern. We now need to get to the bottom of whether there are legitimate reasons for this and, if not, what action can be taken to address it.

“On the whole the retail market does seem to be competitive, but there are some areas that warrant further investigation. These include finding out whether the disparities in price between urban and rural areas are justified.

“This area of work is a major priority for the CMA and if we can help, we will. That’s why we are immediately launching a market study that will use our formal legal powers to investigate this in more depth. If evidence emerges of collusion or similar wrongdoing, we won’t hesitate to take action.”

The principal drivers of rising pump prices over the last 12 months have been:

  • Crude oil prices, which reached record levels in sterling terms in March 2022, and have continued to rise since then. The dollar-terms increase in oil prices over the last year accounts for around a third of the rise in road fuel prices (20p per litre), with the fall in the value of sterling in that period adding a further 12% (7p per litre).
  • A growing gap between the price of crude oil entering refineries and the wholesale price of petrol and diesel leaving them (the ‘refining spread’). This accounts for just over 40% of the growth in road fuel prices (24p per litre). Both increased demand post-COVID-19 recovery and reductions in supply (in particular due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the mothballing of refining capacity during COVID-19) appear to have played a role in driving up the refining spread.

Although there are concerns from some about fuel retailers profiting from the current situation, our review finds that over the course of a year, the gap between wholesale prices and retail prices (the ‘retailer spread’) has not been a significant contributor to the overall rise in pump prices.

The retailer spread is volatile, and the CMA is aware that in recent weeks it has grown larger. The CMA will be monitoring this closely as it takes forward the market study.

Further analysis of the relationship between wholesale and retail prices – including how rises and falls in wholesale prices are reflected at the pump – will be carried out as part of the CMA’s market study.

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