Anger has been voiced that struggling consumers are facing more misery to try and heat homes after the average price of oil in Northern Ireland shot up by £10 in the last 48 hours.
And a leading consumer watchdog has expressed further concern that the most vulnerable who can’t afford to fill a tank are being ripped off with emergency drums costing double the price.
According to the Consumer Council an average 20-litre emergency drum is £16.99 compared to £8.80 for 20 litres in a 900 litre fill.
The average price of 900 litres in Northern Ireland on January 4 was £383.73; two days later it had risen to £396.05. This is compared to the same amount costing £358.78 on December 2, 2009.
The rise comes as Northern Ireland is caught in the grip of the coldest spell in a generation with temperatures plummeting well below zero.
The jump in price has led to calls by the Consumer Council for better regulation of oil prices while politicians have suggested a ‘fuel tsar’ be appointed.
The Northern Ireland Oil Federation, however, refutes the claims saying the need for better regulation is “unfounded”. But John French, head of energy at the Consumer Council, said there are “real concerns” for consumers who are left with no other option but to buy lower quantities of oil at double the cost.
“We have serious questions about whether this price difference is fair and reflective for those consumers who are struggling to afford to heat their homes this winter,” he said.
“Once again we call on the oil industry to explain their pricing structure to consumers.”
A spokesman for the National Oil Federation said it does not recommend the use of emergency drums to heat the home.
“The differential in price you refer to reflects the cost of the barrel, label, packaging and delivery. We would encourage consumers to ask their supplier what pre-payment methods are available to ensure a regular supply of oil is always available,” he said.
Earlier this week politicians said tighter regulations and more diversity in home fuels were needed in Northern Ireland.
The SDLP suggested a ‘fuel tsar’ was needed to protect the vulnerable against unfair pricing.
The National Energy Action NI said given that 70% of homes are dependent on oil for heating it is “anomalous that electricity and gas should be regulated but oil is not”. They said a new body should not be created but added: “There is therefore a very strong case for bringing oil within the regulated family.”
They recommended that the remit of the Northern Ireland Authority Utility Regulator, which monitors electricity and gas, be extended to include the regulation of oil.
“We therefore recommend that NIAUR, with its team of economists who currently have the remit for regulating gas and electricity, should have the powers invested in them to deal with oil and do with so with ‘real teeth’.”
A spokesperson for the Utility Regulator said the question of whether it should regulate oil prices is a matter for the Government.
Iain Osborne, Utility Regulator chief executive, said: “If it was decided by government that the oil sector should fall within our remit, we would regulate to the same standard as we currently exercise in the regulation of the electricity, gas and water industries.”