Gas Oil in Crisis: The Shape of the Problem

What quality of gas oil are you buying?

If you think it’s all the same, think again.

Some of you may already have heard that the specification for gas oil – or “red diesel” – has changed recently. What you might not be aware of is that there are now several different fuels on the market, all being legally sold as gas oil or red diesel.

So do you need to be worried? Yes, is the simple answer.

Up to the change there were three different grades of gas oil: the standard agricultural red diesel, furnace fuel, and marine gas oil. Furnace fuel and marine gas oil were not readily available, and therefore were never or very rarely sold to the agricultural sector of the market.

Then came the change. Soaring fuel prices and duty levels introduced an incentive to suppliers to source cheaper fuel alternatives. At the same time, the EU decided to allow the addition of a Bio or FAME element to gas oil in the belief that it was the environmentally right thing to do.

This Bio- or FAME-treated gas oil has a relatively short shelf life – it can be as short as six weeks – and tanks must be cleaned or replaced regularly. In many cases, it is cheaper to buy a new tank than get a contractor to clean small tanks. As if that wasn’t enough, the Bio element in the diesel is corrosive, and can attack many types of plastic- and rubber-derived seals.

Effectively there are now a myriad of high, low and sulphur free fuels, some with a bio or FAME content, some without – and on top of this, there are also recycled or reworked gas oil and blends of any of the above.

So there is a problem with quality – but if it’s cheap and legal, where is the problem?

Put simply, only some of the fuels are legal to use in tractors for example. It is quite legal to sell any of these fuels to the market: however, it is not legal to use them in wheeled equipment like tractors. Similarly, it is quite legal to sell gas oil to an end user – but if that user puts it in their car and drives down the road, then they are breaking the law, not the supplier of the fuel.

Why would any fuel distributor risk selling poor quality fuel?

Large amounts of extra margin can be made through the mis-selling of fuel.

Many years ago most fuel distributors were small independent regional companies very often selling branded fuels, Esso, Shell, BP, etc. etc. guaranteed quality, very often all the brands were all loaded from the same oil terminal, in many cases it did literally all come out of the same tank, gas oil was a simple commodity.

Now however things are very different and in some areas of the UK all or most of the independents have sold out to the large national groups, staff are under pressure to sell more and increase margin, big commissions can be made. The personal touch has gone, it’s much easier to mis-sell a product over the phone, and claim there was a misunderstanding. If the customer is known to shop around for every load, it’s impossible to prove who sold the offending product, as it can take months for symptoms to show.

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