UK fuel protest

The fuel protest was a series of protests held in the United Kingdom in 2000 over the cost of petrol.

The protests began September 5 2000 when an upward shift in the price of crude oil prompted major oil companies to announce an increase in the price of petrol to around 81 pence per litre of unleaded (3.60/$6.50 per gallon). The following day some lorries blockaded the entrance to the British side of the Channel Tunnel, causing heavy delays on the M20 motorway. The following day a further group of protesters, again from the haulage industry, blockaded the Stanlow Shell Oil refinery near Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.

The oil industry were the target of some of the protesters' ire because of their failure to pass reductions in the (highly variable) price of crude oil but speed at passing on prices increases. However the primary target was the Government's fuel tax policy. The British figure of three-quarters of the cost of petrol being tax (in the form of fuel duty or value added tax) is somewhat higher than the European average, and dramatically higher than other developed countries such as the United States and Australia. The fuel protesters said that this disparity was making it increasingly difficult for the British haulage industry to remain competitive with their European rivals, especially since the introduction of the European free market on December 31 1992. The situation led to a difficult position for the oil companies - it was actually perhaps in their long-term interest to support the protesters because if the pressure on the Government succeeded in reducing fuel tax, then consumers would likely buy more petrol, increasing profits for the oil companies. Because of the temporary chaos that ensued it was politically impossible for the companies to come out in support, some commentators suggested that they did not do all they could to get lorries carrying fuel through the assembled protesters. The oil companies responded to this by saying that although they could get lorries through at some depots, they refused to do so on the account of the safety of the drivers.

By Sunday the 10th of September six of the eight major oil refineries around the country had been blockaded by protesters. Drivers, realizing that no new petrol would be heading to petrol stations, started "panic buying" petrol while it was still available. This itself had the effect of hastening a petrol shortage because petrol stations operate a tight "just in time" policy to minimize operate costs that does not allow for dramatic upswings in demand. Some economists chastised the Government for calling the phenomenon "panic buying", saying that on the contrary the behaviour was rational in the circumstances. Local radio stations ran phone-ins advising drivers where fuel had not sold out.

By Tuesday the 12th of September, one-third of all stations in the country were reported to be completely without fuel. Various reports indicated between 75 and 90% of stations were closed at some point during the crisis - many stations closed before they were completely empty in order to lengthen the time they were to supply emergency services. On the morning of the 12th Tony Blair was driven back to London from Newcastle in order to deal with growing chaos. Many commentators were keen to point out the high fuel consumption rate of his Jaguar, though others regarded this as a cheap shot in a time of crisis. Some health authorities cancelled non-essential operations to reduce ambulance movement. Later in the day Blair held meetings with the UK chairmen of the oil companies and on the evening news announced that measures were being taken to clear the blockades and that the "situation would begin to return to normal tomorrow." Blair and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport, said that the Government would not be bounced into a "rash decision" on fuel tax because of the protestors.

Now that the safety of the lorry drivers was guaranteed by a preponderance of police numbers at the refineries and depots, and noting a shift in public opinion that had earlier been firmly behind the backers, the blockades dissipated rapidly on Wednesday morning. The protestors said that they were giving the Government sixty days to do act on the issue or they would protest further.

In November, just prior to the sixty day deadline, there was some further panic-buying reported in East Kilbride and Glasgow. In fact such buying turned out not to be necessary; although truckers slow-moving protestors along motorways converging on London over the 13th and 14th of November, the renewed protest did not gather much support. Chancellor Gordon Brown's had announced in his pre-Budget report published the week beforehand that fuel duty was to be frozen for two years, perhaps eroding some of the support base for the strikes. By Christmas extra production by OPEC members had brought the price of crude oil down, which in turn led to petrol price reductions.

A report published by the Department for Transport said that at the protest's peak, 14th September, motorway traffic was 40% below normal levels and non-motorway traffic 25% below.

The protests were organised by Richard Haddock, David Handley and Brynle Williams. Williams later became a member of the Welsh Assembly for the Conservative party. In May 2004, with crude oil and petrol prices edging ahead of their September 2000 levels, fuel prices again hit the public agenda, with some suggesting further protests may be imminent.

By March 2005, fuel prices had risen far above those that triggered the 2000 fuel protest without any further disruption, to an average of more than 0.84 GBP per litre (the falling dollar makes this just $6.03 USD per gallon).



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