New laws turn up the heat on illegal gas dealers

The technical officer at the EPRA Silas Sanga shows gas cylinders which were impounded at a yard in Changamwe, Mombasa county. [File, Standard]

There has been a surge in the number of court cases relating to the illegal handling of cooking gas as a change in the law starts to bear fruits.

But the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (Epra) says the high number of cases is a result of increased surveillance.

Aided by a recently enacted set of laws, the industry regulator said it has been able to clamp down on many illegal traders and drive down their activities to their lowest levels.

According to Epra, as of this month, there were 60 cases before courts relating to various liquified petroleum gas (LPG) malpractices.

The regulator added that these were in addition to 11 cases that have been determined in the recent past.

The number of cases in courts as well as those being handled administratively by Epra has significantly gone up from just a handful over the past years.

Epra said the high number of instances relating to offences on LPG is due to its increased surveillance of the industry, adding that it has been aided by the recently enacted legislation as well as increased cooperation with law enforcement agencies.

With the help of the Petroleum Act of 2019 and the LPG Regulations (2019), Epra said it has been able to bring down to bare minimums, illegal refilling in the country.

“The authority has increased surveillance to ensure compliance. Those found contravening the regulations are being charged and prosecuted in court,” said Epra, adding that it has also instituted other administrative actions, including license suspension or revocation.

“Illegal refilling has significantly reduced since the enactment of Petroleum Act, 2019 and the Petroleum (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) -Regulations 2019. The penalties stipulated in these two pieces of legislation are punitive such that illegal refilling is discouraged.”

The regulator, however, noted that even with higher levels of surveillance, the illegal trade has gone on, with rogue operators adopting new tactics.

“The illegal operations were shifted to night hours, and our National Police Service has come in handy in undertaking patrols to curb the same. The measures in place as per the Petroleum Act, 2019 and the Petroleum (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) Regulations, 2019 are currently what the authority is implementing with a view to completely eradicating illegal refilling,” said Epra.

“We have sought approval from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to have our lawyers as public prosecutors to fast-track prosecution of cases in various courts.”

Epra also said it names and shames companies and facilities found to be undertaking illegal activities, a move that is aimed at informing and protecting consumers from malpractices.

The cases in court vary from refiling and trading in cylinders belonging to other companies, refiling in LPG facilities that have not been licensed by Epra and transportation of gas in a manner contrary to the requirements of the law. The 2019 regulations abolished an exchange pool that saw consumers refill their cylinders at any LPG marketer and, in turn, made consumers stick to one brand, a move that made the companies accountable for their cylinders.

The previous arrangement, the players argued, had seen them lose control over their cylinders, which were being used in the illegal market.

While abolishing the pool was an inconvenience for consumers who now have to make longer trips to outlets that retail the brand of LPG cylinder they use, it ensured their safety.

Players had in pushing for the enactment of the 2019 LPG regulations sensationally claimed that the illegal traders had taken as much as 70 per cent of the retail industry.

While the claims were never independently verified, there was an increase in domestic accidents caused by cooking gas.

The regulations also have relatively harsher penalties for guilty offenders.

The exchange pool was established in 2008 and allowed consumers to refill cooking gas at the nearest LPG retailer. It, however, had unintended consequences, with gas cylinders ending up in the hands of the unscrupulous traders who would refill them illegally and bring the unsafe products into the market.

Without going through the revalidation processes to ensure they are safe as LPG cylinder owners are required to, the cylinders would every so often explode in people’s kitchens, with many of the accidents fatal.

While the regulations disbanded the pool in 2019, it noted that there are still unresolved issues, including cylinders that are yet to find their way back to the companies that own them.

“At the end of the LPG exchange pool, several facilities retained cylinders that belong to other brand owners for various reasons among them, non-payment. We have begun the process of identifying and storing all those cylinders, pending a decision from the authority,” said Epra.

The consumption of cooking gas has been growing over the years to stand at 371,400 tonnes last year, a 15.7 per cent growth compared to 320,909 tonnes consumed in 2020.

LPG consumption grew rapidly from a small base in 2012, and by 2016 consumption in the residential and commercial sector had almost doubled from 2013 levels to about 151,700 tonnes,” said the regulator in a report.