Panic buying at the pumps eases off as protests flop

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Panic-buying of petrol at service stations eased as drivers discovered that planned nationwide protests at centres for the oil supply network had been a massive flop.

Just a handful of hauliers and motorists gathered outside refineries and distribution depots - to the relief of the British oil industry, which has experienced one of its most tense weeks.

But garages across the country remained shut and without fuel after pre-protest jitters sent drivers queuing round the block for fuel earlier this week. An estimated week's supply was sold on Tuesday, causing angry scenes when queuing motorists were told the pumps had run dry.

Super unleaded fuel has passed £1 a litre after oil production problems caused by Hurricane Katrina and rising world demand from the booming economies of China and India.

Last night the oil industry offered hope that the price of fuel at the pumps would fall by up to 4p next week in response to the release of 60 million barrels of crude oil and gasoline by the United States and 25 other members of the International Energy Agency.

Meanwhile, motorists wondered whether there would be fresh demonstrations outside refineries today or tomorrow - when Welsh hauliers plan a go-slow along the M4, as part of a planned three-day period of protests.

The farmer and haulier Andrew Spence, of the Fuel Lobby, had urged the public to head to their nearest oil depot from 6am yesterday to protest against the level of tax levied on fuel.

Ministers were prepared to introduce petrol rationing and the Army and police were set to remove any trucks trying to block the route of tankers replenishing stocks at garages.

In the event, the protests were barely a shadow of the fuel crisis five years ago, when the country was brought to a standstill by a series of impromptu pickets of refineries.

At the Shell refinery in Jarrow, on Tyneside, yesterday, demonstrators were outnumbered by members of the media. There was no disruption at Kingsbury oil terminal in Warwickshire, a storage depot at Avonmouth docks, nor at Shell's Stanlow oil refinery in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire.

And there were no problems at the Fawley oil refinery in Hampshire, where a handful of protesters turned up, only to leave at the lack of support.

A dozen people gathered at the entrance to an oil terminal in Purfleet, Essex. One of the protesters, who did not want to be named, said: "It's a big letdown. We were hoping for a couple of hundred people." James Hart, a haulier from Dover, Kent, said: "I think the problem is people can't afford to take time off work."

Chris Hunt, director general of the UK Petroleum Industry Association, which represents the eight big oil companies, said: "The fuel protests have not affected our refineries or our main terminals at all."

In fact, more tankers were leaving depots than normal to replenish fuel stocks at petrol stations, he said, adding that concern had been stoked "primarily by some press hype on Monday - which became a self-fulfilling prophecy".

"There was never a real crisis," Mr Hunt said.

There was evidence of some panic buying yesterday morning but it faded once television footage showed the paucity of support for the protests.

Professor Cary Cooper, from Lancaster University, said the panic-buyers were motivated by insecurity about not being able to use their cars. "The lemming mentality and sheep-like behaviour occur where you feel that if people are queuing up they must know something you don't. If you had 20 people in a queue and there wasn't a strike, people would still queue with them and find out later what it was about."

Garages reported "brisk" trade but few if any queues. Ray Holloway, of the Petrol Retailers' Association, predicted that by the weekend everything would be back to normal.

Defending the protest, Mr Spence insisted it was always meant to be small.

"We didn't want a lot of people here," he said. "I would rather there was just a handful of us." He maintained that the threat had raised the issue on the political agenda. "I doubt that the Government would have given us the 1.2p freeze in duty proposed for October. I like to think that we have achieved something this week," he said.

Leader of previous stand-off offers to mediate

Brynle Williams, the Welsh farmer and haulier who was one of the figureheads of the 2000 fuel price protests that brought the country to a standstill, has been involved again this week by offering to mediate between the Government and the protesters.

Mr Williams has been a Conservative member of the Welsh Assembly for the Cardiff Bay area since elections in 2003, although he had not been an active supporter of the party beforehand.

Bluff and outspoken, he came to prominence as a figurehead for the farmers and hauliers protesting outside the Stanlow oil refinery in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire.

He farms sheep and cattle in Flintshire and had also been active on behalf of farmers generally. He was involved in demonstrations when Welsh farmers dumped Irish beef into the sea at Holyhead.

Earlier this week, Mr Williams warned the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, John Healey, of the depth of anger among hauliers and his fears that some might halt operations until fuel costs reduce.

He has offered to act as a go-between because of his close contacts with the hauliers.

Terry Kirby