Motorists are bracing for record fuel prices after London's biggest oil refinery went bust yesterday, putting about 1,000 jobs at risk.
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The Coryton refinery on the Thames, which refines 175,000 barrels of crude oil a day, ceased deliveries of petrol, diesel and heating oil as PricewaterhouseCooper was appointed administrator.
PwC is trying to secure financing to rescue Coryton, which is owned by Switzerland's Petroplus and supplies about 600 BP and Texaco petrol stations in London and the South-east. This represents a fifth of the 2,000 forecourts in the region and a tenth of the UK total.
"By the end of the month, diesel will have hit a record high while petrol will be pushing up towards record levels as suppliers scrabble to bring in supplies from Europe," said Brian Madderson, chairman of RMI Petrol, which represents two-thirds of Britain's forecourts.
Diesel peaked last May at 143.04p a litre and is now at 142.21p. Petrol is 133.89p against a peak of 137.43p.
Richard Howitt, East of England MEP, said: "I don't want to be alarmist about this, but I don't want to be dishonest either. Supplies across London and the South-east could be affected and I have been told this could impact the Olympics."
BP, one of Coryton's biggest customers, said it would urgently seek alternative suppliers for its forecourts, although it has reserves of petrol to last in the short term.
Making matters worse for UK drivers, tanker drivers working for the road haulier Wincanton began a week of industrial action over pay and conditions yesterday that will disrupt supplies to 380 Jet forecourts, owned by ConocoPhilips. Most are in the the Midlands and North but about a fifth are in the South-east.
Coryton's future has been thrown into doubt after emergency talks with the creditors of Petroplus collapsed. The firm has been hit by falling demand, as consumers drive less to save money, and rising oil prices.
Simon Pearson, joint administrator and a PwC partner, said: "Our priority is to continue to operate the Coryton refinery and the Teesside storage business without disruption while the financial position is clarified and restructuring options are explored."
Although Coryton has stopped supplying petrol, diesel, jet fuel and heating oil, it is continuing to refine them and is thought to have about a week until its supplies of crude oil run out and it is no longer able to continue.
The Unite union said it is in talks with Petroplus to try to save the refinery.
BP would not rule out a deal to help resuscitate Coryton. A BP spokesman said it was "seeking clarification" from Petroplus about the status of its operation.
Jean-Paul Vettier, Petroplus' chief executive, said: "We have worked hard to avoid this outcome, but we were ultimately not able to come to an agreement with our lenders to resolve these issues. We are fully aware of the impact that this will have on our workforce, their families and the communities where we have operated our businesses."