(Note: This article discusses how rising fuel prices sparked the protest of 2000 British citizens, and brought the entire nation to a halt by stopping the flow of petroleum products for nine days…)
“Remember, remember, the fifth of September,
Petrol sedition and plot.
I know of no reason why the Petrol malfeasance
Should ever be forgot.” (1)
A year before 9/11/2001 happened in the USA, a ‘terrifying incident’ of a different sort happened in Europe that changed how political leaders across the world would forever understand the essential role oil resources played in the ‘developed nations.’
It started with a few angry French fishermen who found it harder and harder to make a living with the price of gas increasing, and blamed government taxation. They were so angry, they protested by blocking the English Channel, an entrance to a port, that prevented oil tankers from delivering fuel supplies. The protest quickly and spontaneously spread to farmers and truck drivers, who blocked oil refineries and distribution depots. The situation became so serious, according to one report, “that the government considered using police and troops to force the removal of blockades, but massive public sympathy for the action, estimated at 88 percent in favour, made such an option all but impossible. A Jospin aide told the press, ‘If we can avoid a direct confrontation like that we will. One knows how that kind of thing begins. One doesn’t know how it ends.’”(2).
Oil had reached new heights of $34.50 a barrel and 84p a liter.
It was a fuel protest that caused fuel shortages affecting millions of Europeans, yet, if you lived in the USA, you probably never heard about or knew the extent of those two weeks. There were no flashy newspaper headlines. No ‘breaking stories’ in T.V. news. Nevertheless, we should remember the 5th of September, and if you agree after reading this article, send in your suggestions. What might be the most appropriate name to commemorate the events of those ten days. The ‘Petrol Tea Party,” “Petrol 9/11” or maybe “Petrol Days of Peril.” I’ll refer to it hear as the Petrol Sedition. Especially if you took part, tell us how it should be commemorated.
One writer thought that French government’s “concessions” to its people actually ‘fueled’ the protests in other countries.(4) If people heard about the petrol protests, they enthusiastically started their own, even when government flattery urged them to do otherwise. For example, speaking for the Blair government, Scottish Secretary John Reid reassured the press that Britain would not experience mass disruption because “the people of this country do not resort to the French way of doing things”. They contrasted the “anarchic” Gaul with the “law-abiding” Briton. But flattery wasn’t enough. It was a protest that struck the hearts of many citizens worldwide, and they took to the streets to announce their frustration and rage. While the French Government was able to appease the striking fisherman, farmers and truck drivers with gasoline tax concessions, the anger at high gas prices ignited or threatened similar protests in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Hungary, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Ireland and the UK.
In the Belgian capital, they played tennis on the empty streets. (3) In Munich, a couple of dozen tractors and trucks stopped traffic while demonstrators waved banners demanding that the government “Stop the Rip Off.”
When the demonstrations spread to the UK, protesters blockaded fuel refineries and distribution depots. Within days, the protests created a fuel crisis that brought the United Kingdom to a halt, and nearly destroyed large sections of its economy.
What happened from September 5th-14th, 2000 was a wake-up call to those entrusted with protecting the functioning of civilization. While protest started on September 5th, the Channel Tunnel was blockaded on September 6. The next day, the first oil refinery, at Stanlow, Chesire, was blockaded. Protests spread rapidly with more refineries blockaded on September 8th. On Sunday, September 10, the protests had closed Britain’s largest oil terminal at Kingsbury, West Midlands, and huge queues (lines) at gas stations were reported. By Tuesday, September 12, protesters had blocked six of the UK’s eight refineries.
On September 9th, a nation-wide panic buying of fuel began. A few days later, over half of Britain’s gas stations were shut down. When the first deliveries of gas began again on September 15th, 90 percent of gas stations were without fuel. Still, even though all protest had stopped, motorists were warned that they could still face a wait of up to two weeks for gas and delivering that gas posed a “massive logistical problem.” (4)
The impact on critical infrastructure was devastating. Food didn’t get delivered to supermarket shelves. Ambulance services stopped as did blood supplies to hospitals. One hospital ran out of stitches and many more complained about being unable to move hazardous materials from their facilities, creating health risk. Medicines were not delivered to pharmacies. ATM machines weren’t loaded with money. The financial impact of the week-long fuel drought was estimated to top £1 billion. (5)
Despite a five percent increase in rider-ship on public transportation (causing overcrowding), trains and buses were required to reduce frequency or stop service on many lines because of lack of gasoline or drivers who couldn’t get to work. Hospital personnel shortages also caused all but emergency hospital care to be cancelled. The ambulances that did run were told to keep their speed below 34.2 km/ to conserve fuel. (6)
Food sales increased 300 percent, and as the sight of empty shelves became common, panic buying increased. By September 13th, having no bread or milk, a number of supermarkets began rationing food purchases.(7)
Postal services were gradually reduced and “seriously threatened.” Guaranteed next day delivery was suspended, and plans had to be put in place to insure that social security checks were delivered to those dependent on them. (8)
Other businesses were equally troubled:
“Industry leaders noted that large parts of the economy, including steel and motor manufacturers, faced the threat of shutdowns, cutbacks and closures had the fuel crisis lasted any longer. Car manufacturers were within a week of shutdown by the time supplies started flowing again. Defense and aerospace industries were also within a week of “serious problems,” and steel makers had been on the brink of a 40 percent reduction in output (9). Some companies started reducing the size and scope of their operations.” (4)
Seeing the havoc their actions caused, demonstrators abandoned their protests and gave the government a 60-day deadline to reduce the fuel duty. But in contrast to the actions of the French government, the British government vowed that no concessions would be made. Instead, they directed efforts toward actions that would assure that no disruption of fuel supplies would happen again. Together with oil company executives, government ministers and police, they outlined a Memorandum of Understanding. Among its provisions, “Essential Users” would be provided with fuel, should such a crisis reoccur. These include:
- Armed forces
- Prison staff
- Coastguards and lifeboat crews
- Fuel and energy suppliers
- Essential financial services staff including those involved in the delivery of cash and cheques
- Essential workers at nuclear sites
- Water, sewerage and drainage
- Central and local government workers
- Refuse collection and industrial waste
- Health and social workers
- Funeral services
- Emergency services
- Food industry
- Public transport
- Licensed taxis
- Airport and airline workers
- Postal, media, telecommunications
- Special schools and colleges for the disabled
- Essential foreign diplomatic workers
- Agriculture, veterinary and animal welfare (10)
For security reasons, details of how these plans, and others like them, were to be implemented, would not be made public. (4) While the British Government blamed the protesters, polls taken after the 5th of September overwhelmingly blamed the government in general (75%) and Tony Blair in particular (78%) for the situation. (11) All over Europe, citizens express sympathy for workers whose livelihoods are being threatened by increasing gas prices. (12)
The first lesson learned from these British “Petrol in Peril’ days was that no one could have imagined the tremendous disruption a brief pause in fossil fuels could cause. Oil is so fundamental to the economy that it strained the imagination of those empowered to manage the crisis. The entire structure of Western Civilization rests on fossil fuel. The second lesson is that when costs of fossil fuels rise, it angers people, and to quote a popular movie “The people shouldn’t be afraid of their governments, the government should be afraid of their people,” and afraid of the people they are.
I would like to stress that this disruption occurred when common British subjects engaged in public protest, not as a result of a “terrorist attack.” It became clear to the British Government–and to those leaders in many other developed countries who heeded the warning–that a robust and collaborative mechanism had to be put into place to protect the functioning of its economy and critical infrastructures. A powerful commitment to the normal supply of oil fuels became a national priority as it was an economic imperative. No public protest could or would be allowed if it impacted oil supplies.
When these protests crippled one of the world’s most powerful nations, when in nine days, London Bridge came tumbling down, those entrusted with the power to act quickly came up with a Plan B.
Will this plan be successful as the price of oil and the temper of its citizens, continue to climb? Will we be content to have decisions be made by the same industries that supply us with the energy we find so essential? How ‘independent’ can oil and gas companies really be when they are so well aware of their dwindling resources and how essential it is to the functioning of our infrastructure? Are we entitled to a say on how the last remaining drops of oil are spread around the globe or even to know that fossil fuels are running out?
How “free” can our citizens be to “protest” in ways that create such a dramatic infrastructure impact? Angry American colonists started a revolution when they destroyed the commodity that symbolized a financial burden on them by a governmental body that no longer represented their interests. It ended in a bloody battle no one expected and an independence from a government they had no interest in separating from. The government responded in a repressive way that further enraged the people. Will oil be the new tea party?
What compromises will our governments make on our behalf to energy companies in order to assure a steady supply?
We are facing a life or death situation that creates both an intellectual and emotional strain. Even this brief look into the British Petrol Sedition tells an interlocking and devastating tale of what an oil shortage looks like. It tells a frightening tale of the power held in the hands of a small number of emotional, angry people who feel that their very livelihoods are being challenged by high oil prices and want their governments to do something about it.
It tells an equally chilling tale of a British Government response of stepping behind closed doors and, to quote UK Home Secretary, Jack Straw, assuring the British people, “public order, public safety and, above all, ensuring a free flow of petrol into our economy and our society” (13). Instead of assuring a way of managing an increasingly costly fuel supply, the government instead wants to protect the oil supply from the effects of its own angry citizens. Instead of engaging in frank discussions about how dependent our civilization is on oil for its very existence, and how it is becoming increasingly scarce, it decided instead to sit with the power elite, police and oil company executives and decide how to protect the oil. But if, in the words of Mr. Straw, there can be no public order or safety without petrol, can there also be no discussion that our petrol is in peril?
It is unfortunate that this story is not discussed in more detail in public forums throughout the world. It was very difficult for me to find the information again, even with a Google search, after I initially misplaced the link. A protest that happened in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK and a fuel shortage that affected millions of Europeans and deadening silence particularly in the US press? Maybe the writers for V for Vendetta were right when they talked about symbols:
Oil is a symbol, as is the act of blocking access to it. Symbols are given power by people. A symbol, in and of itself is powerless, but with enough people behind it, the symbolic act of stopping access to it can change the world. I believe it has. The question now becomes whether, as people of the world, dependent on that symbol for our very notion of “culture” and “civilization,” can recognize begin to own it and modify it. It is clear that delivering fossil fuels to those who can afford it, is of utmost importance to the keepers of our culture. They have learned the painful lessons about what happens when the flow of oil stops. All of you in the Peak Oil community realize that it will stop, but before it does, it will become wildly expensive. The events of September 5th, 2000, tell us that we will be cut out of who will still have access to dwindling resources, and who will not. If we pay attention to the actions of our leaders, we will learn that they will protect the flow of oil first, our safety second, and our freedoms last.
Future protests resulting from a rising price of oil are a given. Rising oil prices makes it increasingly difficult to live, as the price of everything from transportation, food, medicine, and keeping warmskyrockets. Now, more than ever, we need to voice our opposition to being excluded from the closed door sessions of decision-makers. We need to see the Petrol Sedition as a preview of coming attractions, because that’s how the governments of the world see it.
While it is easy to fear a government who covertly puts into place “security” action plans to protect their structures from the people who empower those structures, it is harder to see how increasingly powerless government agents are to control public discourse and human actions. Angry citizens now network by mobile phones, faxes, CB radios and internet. Instead of joining “organized groups” who can be easily infiltrated and monitored, citizens become spontaneously a part of a network of like-minded people. Governments who used to tap “seditious organizations” now have to buy telephone records of an entire country. The Petrol Sedition was a peaceful protest by 2000 British citizens who decided to stand up and voice their opinions, not hard-line radicals intent on overthrowing a government.
While we may complain about having no steady employer or benefits, being an “independent contractor” or “working from home” means you can do as you please and join an action that enhance your values, life and livelihood. Many trucking companies began to “subcontract” petrol trucking jobs to independent agents, some of whom had been fired and rehired for the same position without benefits and at lower pay. While the British press talked about the “intimidation” of truck drivers, to secure their cooperation during the protests, sympathetic cooperation of people with similar self-interest was a more likely story. And what was the nature of the “intimidation?” The driver’s face would be listed on the internet and other people would become aware of the truck driver’s values as reflected in their actions.
Yes, I believe that the 5th of September caused great worry for our elected officials, but instead of boldly telling us the truth about what’s coming, they built detention centers. Instead of giving massive subsidies for alternative energy production, they give tax breaks to oil companies who willingly pump out the last trickles from the ground.
Ultimately, however, we, the people of the world, are the only ones who can hold our governments responsible. For human nature is such that government and elected officials can do no better than to secure their own continuity in office and maintain the power structures that currently exist. We can’t expect these institutions to offer us a way out of the evaporating oil supply. They will not do it, and instead will work swiftly to assure that things continue as they are.
Like frogs in increasingly warmer and warmer waters, we can wait to be boiled to death if we stay immobile and don’t start asking “Why are these things happening?” If 84p was too great a price to pay for petrol, why is 96p acceptable? We need to see things as they really are, to speak up and to discuss what is happening among ourselves. Ultimately, we need to continue to share ideas, see things in alternative ways, remain seditious. We need to look to those in our own communities to ask “How can we decrease our dependence on fossil fuels? How can we feed ourselves? Provide for our basic needs?”
While the solutions are to be implemented locally, however, discussion is paradoxically most lively on an international level. Our problems are the same, as global trade has impacted us all in similar ways. Corporate reach is global. Therefore, our conversations will be most effective when we know what others around the globe are doing to search for solutions. We gain power by refusing to accept what a corporate media calls “History-making events.” We break the silence and share thoughts and ideas.
To quote again that comic book turned movie V for Vendetta:
”There are of course those who do not want us to speak. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the annunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance, and depression. And where once you had the freedom to object, think, and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror.(14)
- A twist on a a popular British rhyme is often quoted on Guy Fawkes Night, in memory of the Gunpowder Plot and used in a recent movie V for Vendetta “Remember, remember, the fifth of November,/gunpowder treason and plot./I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason /should ever be forgot.”
- Fuel protests escalate throughout Europe http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/sep2000/oil-s12_prn.shtml
- Broxellois Find their Feet. BBC News online http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/923423.stm
- Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC): Incident Analysis: IA05-001. Impact of September 2000 Fuel Price Protests on UK Critical Infrastructure January 25, 2005 http://www.iwar.org.uk/cip/resources/PSEPC/fuel-price-protests.htm
- Cost of Dispute Could Top £1bn, Say Firms. Guardian Unlimited on Line, 15 September 2000, http://www.guardian.co.uk/petrol/story/0,7369,369147,00.html.
- How Protesters Fuelled a Very 21st-Century Crisis. Guardian Unlimited on Line.17 September 2000.16 July 2003
- NHS on Red Alert. BBC News Online: Health.13 September 2000.16 July 2003 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/921414.stm>.
- Blair Moves to End Growing UKFuel Crisis. CNN on Line: 2000, 12 September 2000, < http://edition.cnn.com/2000/WORLD/europe/09/12/london.fuel.02>.
- Rationing Keeps NHS Afloat. Guardian Unlimited on Line.15 September 2000 .16 July 2003 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/petrol/story/0,7369,368702,00.html>.
- Source: Britain‘s Essential Services. BBC News Online: UK.15 September 2000. 4 July 2003 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/925662.stm>.
- Fuel Crisis Post Mortem Begins. BBC News Online. 16 September 2000 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/925616.stm
- Europe Fuel Crisis Escalates. BBC News Online. 15 September 2000 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/925783.stm
- Fuel Crisis Bring Chaos to NHS. BBC News Online: Health. 13 September 2000.16 July 2003 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/923621.stm>.
- From the movie “V for Vendetta” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0434409/quotes.