Diesel blunder could cost state millions

  • 2001-04-05
  • Kairi Kurm
TALLINN - An error in regulations prepared by Estonia's Ministry of Economy last June may have denied the state hundreds of millions of kroons in unpaid duties and probably also caused damage to Estonian car engines, the business daily Aripaev discovered March 27.

The nationwide regulations for quality norms of liquid fuels, signed by Minister of Economy Mihkel Parnoja, misprinted an acidity level in the summer diesel fuel that was 25 times higher than that permitted by European norms.

The regulations foresaw 2 milligrams of potassium hydroxide (KOH) per gram of summer diesel instead of the necessary 5 mg KOH/100 cm3 acidity level. The blunder appeared in the regulations three times.

By using this mistake the importers of light heating oil have had the opportunity to fool the state by selling specially marked oil as diesel fuel after adding acid to it. Some enterprising individuals have been taking advantage of this mistake. At one site discovered in Harju county recently, light heating oil was being processed using sulfuric acid.

Statistics show that the consumption of diesel fuel is 4.7 times higher in Estonia than its imports of this type of fuel. An average of 28,000 tons of diesel fuel is consumed every month, while only 6,000 tons are imported.

This means that since the excise duty of diesel fuel is 3,040 kroons ($173) per ton and the duty for light heating oil is only 500 kroons, the state has been losing about 56 million kroons a month in unpaid duties.

Parnoja said he was amazed that it took so long to spot the mistake, and that it could have slipped into the regulations in the first place. The regulations were worked out with the cooperation of specialists from the car salesmen's union AMTEL, energy sector businessmen and scientists.

"We have to find out why nobody noticed it before," Parnoja commented to Aripaev.

Aleksander Johanson, head of Kutuste Umarlaud, a union that comprises car salesmen, scientists and fuel-related entrepreneurs, said that their suggestions had not been taken into account. He hinted that the mistake may have slipped in – and the regulations taken advantage of – deliberately.

The high level of acidity could, according to Johanson, cause corrosion and damage car engines.

Maria Alajoe, the minister's adviser, said the cause was human error, that of the senior specialist of the ministry's energy department. She added that the manager of the department and the minister himself are also responsible for the mistake.

However, "The energy department has done its best to fix the mistake as quickly as possible," said Alajoe. A new and improved version of the regulations came into force on April 1, 2001.

The minister has also sent a request to the Estonian Energy Market Inspectorate and to an expert in liquid fuels, Leevi Molder, a well-respected professor at Tallinn Technical University, to find out whether the mistake has enabled some companies to cash in on it and fool the state.

Not everybody agrees that fuel quality has suffered a great level of damage. "Liquid fuel quality tests ordered by the Estonian Energy Market Inspectorate and the Estonian Consumer Protection Board in 2000 showed that the parameters of fuel samples tested were within the allowable limits, even those for acidity requirements," said Alajoe.

Indeed, tests ordered by AMTEL from Belgian experts last November also showed that the quality of diesel sold in Estonia was tolerable. The only shortcoming found, in about half the samples tested, was in the bad oil characteristics of diesel.

The tests showed that the most problematic fuel on the Estonian market was gasoline 95, where half of the samples had a smaller octane rate than that indicated in certificates, and most containing too much unwashed gum.