Blog : Fuel – don’t panic!


Been hearing all over the media today that drivers have begun to panic buy fuel after hearing rumours of 2000-style fuel blockades. I must admit that I did think about filling up the 75 and my two Allegros in order to see out any potential fuel crisis… then I thought, ‘why bother?’

I remember the last time this happened in 2000 – and was lucky enough to own two cars with large fuel tanks. These kind of protests had never been seen in the UK before, and most of us weren’t prepared for what was to happen in the coming week. We initally heard that a group of farmers and hauliers had blockaded all of the country’s depots in order to interrupt the fuel supply, but it was considered only a minor news story when it broke…

I first heard this on the Saturday evening, and decided to fill up the tanks of my two cars immediately. Back then I ran a Mitsubishi Carisma TD (please don’t ask) and an Audi 90E – the first was very frugal; the second wasn’t too bad on petrol, but also had a nice, large fuel tank. When I got to my local TESCO, there were no cars queuing, and I filled up without any problems at all – in fact, I felt a little foolish for overreacting.

At the time I was working in the City of London, and commuted by using my Carisma (lucky me). On Monday, there seemed to be a creeping realisation that something was happening – the blockades were holding, and were making the news. Petrol stations immediately became a whole lot busier, as drivers realised that they might not be able to buy fuel again for some time.

By Tuesday, all the Capital’s petrol stations were experiencing 1974-style queueing, and panic buying had definitely moved into overdrive. I remember seeing queues for filling stations which blocked the main roads that fed them – meaning the police were being called in to direct traffic, and in some cases diffuse violence between drivers. By this time, things were beginning to get a little scary.

By Wednesday, my favourite radio station, Magic 105.4 (yeah, I know), was reporting that most petrol stations in London were now dry – and panic buying was now beginning to take hold in the shops as well. People were buying up all the bread they could get hold of, and the news was full of stories of desperate people who were now struggling to get on with their lives without petrol. I remember vividly looking down at my fuel gauge on the drive back that evening, and saw that it was now around the half way point – I also pondered how quickly society seemed to be breaking down. It had only been four days, after all…

On Thursday, things had become surreal. Driving home that evening, I was confronted by the most amazing sight during the rush hour on the M1. It was almost completely deserted. Magic FM announced there was still fuel at London Gateway services, and obviously, everyone headed there. At the time, there appeared to be no let up in sight of the fuel blockades, so I headed into London Gateway (yes, I know, the fuel gauge was nestling somewhere between half and a quarter, and I figured I could do with a top-up. Bad in retrospect) and joined the back of the queue. It was as I waited in a two-hour queue for fuel that something wierd happened – drivers got out of their cars and actually spoke to each other. We all chatted about the blockades, and voiced our concerns – and although we were being inconvenienced by them, we all supported the action. When I rejoined the motorway after taking on my £20 ration, I put my foot down – the motorway was almost deserted save for a number of repmobiles crawling along lane one at about 50mph… Almost perversely given the situation, I felt free; and steaming along at some silly pace (I didn’t know where my next diesel would be coming from, but I hadn’t forgotten my nice Audi at home, still brimmed), music playing, and feeling as if I had been part of something significant, I pressed on…

Just south of Bedford, I noticed blue flashing lights in my mirror – and yet, somehow I knew they weren’t for me. Sure enough, a convoy of at least a dozen traffic cars sped past me. A couple of moments later I realised why… we had caught a rolling blockade. At the next exit, I peeled off, pulled over on the motorway flyover and watched the convoy go by at a snail’s pace. It was at this moment that I realised that in less than a week, a handful of determined people had almost managed to bring our country to a complete standstill. By the time I got home, it was already clear the blockades were being disbanded, and by the following day, the fuel trucks were leaving the refineries they had been incarcerated in for five days… It was over – the point had been made.

Personally speaking, I actually genuinely admired the guys who came up with that plan – and then had the guts to execute it. They knew exactly how to cause disruption, but in a non-violent way that managed to keep the public onside. Perhaps if it had dragged on much longer, this might have changed – but in the end, they got what they wanted, and the policy of the ‘fuel duty accelerator’ had been abandoned.

This time round, the principal reason for spiralling fuel prices is not government policy, but the after effects of Hurricane Katrina, and spiralling demand for fuel in China. Crude oil costs have gone up significantly since 2000, and at $60 per barrel, oil has never been more expensive for such a sustained period of time. Yes, fuel duty is still excessive, and it really should be reviewed, but is recreating the 2000 blockades the right thing to do? Because of that, I’ve decided to refrain from panic buying…

As it happens, this probably won’t happen anyway – but the rumours doing the rounds over the last few days have served their purpose. Buyers are panic buying, and the fuel cost issue is on the agenda again.

Having said that, the £1 litre is probably here to stay for the forseeable future – perhaps we all need to start driving more economically in the future – I know I’ve already started…

Keith Adams

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