Prepare for more disruption, oil companies warn

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The Independent Online

A renewed fuel protest would lead to shortages and disruption because contingency plans can't guarantee petrol deliveries, oil company bosses warned yesterday.

A renewed fuel protest would lead to shortages and disruption because contingency plans can't guarantee petrol deliveries, oil company bosses warned yesterday.

The public should prepare for "some disruption to national life" if demonstrators blockade refineries in two weeks time, the fuel chiefs told MPs.

Malcolm Brinded, the chairman of Shell UK, said that contingency plans drawn up with the Government, which included police escorts for drivers, would "significantly increase the chances that we will be able to maintain supplies".

But he told the Trade and Industry Select Committee that it would be "foolish to be over-confident. If the blockades were in place again it would take us eight to 12 hours to be at the situation it took us six days to reach last time," he said. "We will, naturally, not have business as usual. There will be a restriction on supplies we are able to deliver and it will have an impact on national life."

The oil companies do not plan to force drivers to leave the refinery gates if they think the situation is unsafe, an industry spokesman said. Army drivers, who have received emergency training, would be called on if supplies to hospitals and the police and other vital services were not getting through but only as "a last resort".

Oil executives denied colluding with protesters during the last wave of blockades in September, insisting that everything possible was done to get fuel to the pumps. Their drivers had faced genuine intimidation, they said, pointing to 180 incidents, including three smashed windows, threats to firebomb homes and suggestions on the internet that drivers were paedophiles.

In preparation for a further wave of blockades, Shell has put up barriers at its Stanlow refinery behind which protesters must stand.

Protest leaders have warned that they plan to mount a four-day slow moving convoy of lorries from Tyneside to London if Chancellor Gordon Brown did not meet their demands in next week's mini budget. The protest would culminate in a mass rally in London on 14 November, the day after the expiry of their 60-day deadline for action from the Government.

At a meeting with the Tory Transport spokesman, Bernard Jenkin, protest leaders signalled their intention to go ahead unless Mr Brown cuts fuel taxes for all motorists.

Mr Jenkin said that the Tories would not support "any form of direct action or disruption". But he said that the protesters "represented a huge strand of British public opinion."

The Confederation of British Industry appealed to fuel protesters not to take to the streets again, warning that they could do "immense" damage to the economy with the loss of thousands of jobs.

"The disruption and the loss to wealth creation, to jobs, to business as a whole, is just so immense it will severely disrupt UK plc in a way which will damage us all in the long term," Digby Jones, the CBI director general told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Helen Liddell, the Energy minister, said that any intimidation of tanker drivers by protesters was "completely unacceptable.It is not the way to conduct a peaceful protest," she said, "and will not be tolerated."