Sunday, April 17, 2005

A Petrol Post

What with the go-go oil market, refinery bottlenecks, Nigerian strikes, global tension and stuff, there's been a considerable degree of interest in the US zone of the blogosphere in questions relating to the price of petrol, the future of oil supply etc. Interestingly, this debate has not seemed to touch down in the British blogs yet, so it may be about time to broach the oil drum.

It ought to be worth discussing this in the light of British experience for a couple of reasons - firstly, that the sort of prices being discussed in either hushed or hysterical tones in the US have been routine for years here, and secondly that we have had some experience of where the pain barrier might lie. Now, let us set the parameters of the question. The Shell station nearest to me was offering petrol at 86.9 pence per litre this afternoon. That is, £4.33 a gallon. Now, the figures mentioned as possible lines of concern when Atrios's commenters discussed this recently were not dissimilar, but they were in US dollars, which these days counts for something. They were worried about, on a consensus view, a level of $4/gallon as the tipping point. Now, at current rates, a gallon of petrol in the UK=$8.20, which would make them gasp with horror.

Of course, though, then you have to remember the infantile UK/US nonstandard measurements! A British gallon is 5 litres, but a US one is less. Price per litre, then, would be some $1.65. US gallon=3.785 litres...that would be $6.24, then. And, well, things aren't so bad.

One of the reasons why things aren't so bad is that oil intensity, the amount of oil used to produce a unit of GDP, is dramatically less in Europe (and even more so, oddly, in Japan) than in the US. Setting the OECD average at 100, the EU figure is 87 - i.e. a dollar of wealth earned in Europe costs 23 per cent less oil. Japan is better yet. Developing countries are dramatically worse. Another factor is that it was government policy for quite a long time to squeeze petrol use. Strangely enough, it was the Tories who introduced a policy of increasing the duty paid on road fuels by more than inflation annually. This so-called escalator succeeded, for a while, in reducing road traffic and increasing public-transport passenger numbers.

Unfortunately, the Tories also privatised the railways, with the result that when it all came crashing down after Hatfield the extra rail passengers flooded back onto the roads. But, just before that, another event had effectively jammed the escalator.

This was the September 2000 fuel protest wave. A fairly small number of angry farmers and truckers, some associated with various right-wing groups, picketed major refining and distributing facilities. The police did not shift them, and the oil company tanker drivers would not go out. Very soon, petrol stations across the North began to run dry, a phenomenon that went nationwide with dizzying speed after a tipping point was reached and panic buying drained those that were still getting supplies.

I was in west Yorkshire at the time, about the second place the panic hit, and it was an unnerving week; perfect weather coupled with repressed crisis fever, dark rumours, Orson Welles-like radio reports. There were multiple attempts to resolve the crisis, but the only one that would work was if the tankers actually left the refineries and the pickets tried to stop them. Then there could be no objection to the cops arresting them, and anything else would be academic. At the end of the week, the TGWU drivers at BP Grangemouth, Fife, rolled the wagons, and the crisis fizzled out. But it had been a draining time for the Left generally. There were no shortage of people who alleged complicity with the oil industry or with right-wing policemen, or somebody, or who compared the non-arrest of the pickets with the treatment of secondary pickets (for these were in effect that) in the miners' strike.

I don't doubt that many of the people involved were fully sincere, but there were indeed credible reports of BNP involvement and that some politicians had been forewarned. One of the leaders later popped up as a Conservative politician in Wales. What does make me wonder exactly how spontaneous the protests were is that, although the price of petrol was much less than it is now, they never reappeared. Occasionally they are known to issue threats, which never materialise. Although the automatic jack-up of petrol taxes was ended, it hasn't gone down, and indeed has gone up - so if not now, when? It's fair, I think, to locate the source not so much in petrol taxes as in the generalised climate of loathing that existed on the Right at the time - this was a period of many dilettantes telling newspapers how they planned to poison reservoirs if fox hunting was banned - and a tribal Tory refusal to accept that The Others were in charge.

Not that this helps much. But it's worth thinking about. Points: UK fuel price levels should not be too much of a terror. And secondly, on the other hand, Republican fuel protestors would no doubt bring their guns. Still, Thierry Breton's suggestion that large consumers ought to tax petrol more makes ten times more sense that trying to sue OPEC for not putting up production levels above the engineered limits of the infrastructure. Witch-hunts against "hoarders" belong in Stalin's Ukraine.

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