Petrol stations raised prices to record levels during the pandemic and then lowered them at an unusually slow pace, in a trend that’s been slammed as “wrong and unacceptable”.

Hiking prices quickly and then holding off on lowering them helps oil companies to earn bigger profits, but hurts consumers, according to the the National Roads and Motorists Association.

“Fuel is an essential commodity in Australia and it’s high time prices reflected that reality,” NRMA spokesman Peter Khoury said.

NRMA analysis of holiday petrol prices in Sydney reveals prices have fallen at a much slower rate than they previously increased.

Over Christmas and New Year’s, prices fell by just one cent a day, a third of the rate of increase.

Sydney’s petrol prices tend to move in cycles, and last time they were on the rise, in early December, they rose by almost three cents per litre every day.

Throughout 2020, prices tended to rise twice as fast as they fell.

“The NRMA has long known that Sydney’s bizarre price cycles exposed motorists to higher prices for longer – especially in 2020 – but for prices to fall three times slower than they rise is patently wrong and unacceptable,” Mr Khoury said.

“The gap between the wholesale and retail prices is one of the key indicators of profit margins at the bowser and the fact that this gap closed to five cents or less on 133 days in 2019, yet only 47 days last year, further highlights that Sydney drivers aren’t getting a fair deal.”

Sydney’s cycles are usually around 28 days long, and in the last 10 of those, retail prices were never below wholesale prices.

That means retailers were pocketing profits through most of last year – for comparison, in 2019, the retail price fell below the wholesale one 41 times in 13 cycles.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the gap between the wholesale and retail price exceeded 18 cents per litre three times – a new record – the NRMA analysis found.

Profit margins for oil firms were highest across Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

The petrol price cycles in some of Australia’s major cities are arbitrary and unique to Australia, Mr Khoury said.

“No other country has these bizarre capital city cycles,” he said.

Being aware of the movement of the cycles in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth makes it easier for drivers to save a buck at the bowser.

Perth is the easiest to keep track of. Petrol prices there move in 7-day cycles, with Tuesday being the cheapest before a steep Wednesday hike.

The average fuel price there was 133.9 on Thursday.

Sydney’s prices, currently at 115.6 cents per litre on average, were expected to keep falling until the end of the weekend or early next week, becoming one cent cheaper per litre each day.

“But you never know when that price goes up again,” Mr Khoury warned.

Brisbane, at 122.9 cents per litre, and Melbourne, at 117.9 cents per litre, were expected to see average prices fall at a similar pace to Sydney.

In Adelaide, where the average fuel price was at 134.4 cents per litre on Thursday, reached the bottom of the last cycle over Christmas. Prices there have already been back at the top and were falling again.

“Last week they were very cheap, then they spiked, and now they’re falling again,” Mr Khoury said.

Canberra, with average prices at 123.3 cents per litre, Darwin, at 116.4, and Hobart, at 124.2, don’t follow cycles and prices there are expected to remain steady.

The Australian Institute of Petroleum has been contacted for comment.

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