Energy Minister Arlene Foster has been urged to establish a ‘fuel tsar’ to help regulate the oil industry and tackle escalating fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.
SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell has put the question to Ms Foster following the results of a Belfast Telegraph poll, which showed that 83% of readers were in favour of a fuel champion to ensure cash-strapped consumers get “open and transparent” prices.
Mr McDonnell asked the minister: “Following the overwhelming public support for the Belfast Telegraph poll for the establishment of a fuel tsar, what plans does the minister have to set up a regulatory body to protect Northern Ireland consumers and ensure oil suppliers operate an open, transparent and fair pricing policy?”
Mr McDonnell, who said the post was not about creating “another layer of bureaucracy”, expects to receive the response this week.
“It’s about taking the necessary steps to protect consumers, particularly people vulnerable to fuel poverty, and helping the oil industry to be more clearly accountable,” he said.
Concern was first raised at the cost of home heating oil — which accounts for 70% of homes in Northern Ireland — during the recent cold snap which saw temperatures drop to -11 in parts of the province.
The average price of 900 litres of oil rose by around £25 in a month as Northern Ireland was caught in the grip of the coldest spell in a generation.
Now figures from the Northern Ireland Consumer Council show that as the temperatures rise, the cost is slowly dropping.
The average cost of 900 litres of oil on December 30, 2009, was £376.41. This jumped to £406.37 on January 11, 2010, and is currently, £376.98.
The Northern Ireland Oil Federation, however, said that the market is “both open and transparent”.
David Blevings, spokesman for the NIOF, said: “The price of oil increased over the last month in an expectation of global economic recovery. This caused greater volatility in the markets together with colder weather which has increased demand.
“The local oil market is both open and transparent. As the wholesale price of kerosene rose in turn the retail price has followed — while regretful, the local distributor has no choice but to pass on these increases.”
Average Northern Ireland price from December 30, 2009 of 900 litres of oil, according to the Consumer Council.