Petrol pumps run dry as nationwide blockades take effect

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The Independent Online

Petrol stations were running dry yesterday as protests engineered by frustrated farmers and hauliers began to bite.

Petrol stations were running dry yesterday as protests engineered by frustrated farmers and hauliers began to bite.

Farmers for Action, the group behind the protests that has targeted oil refineries up and down the country in a French-style direct action campaign, last night vowed to keep the pressure on. A blockade at the Stanlow oil refinery, near Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, meant between 20 and 30 Shell petrol stations in the North West would run out of fuel "imminently", the company said. In Liverpool, BP was warning of shortages at one in seven of its 140 filling stations in that area.

Sainsbury's supermarket, which has 223 petrol stations, said two had run out of fuel, and Asda said that continued protest could affect its petrol stations in the Bristol area. The problem was made worse by panic-buying as motorists rushed to local garages to avoid disappointment later.

But Farmers for Action, formed less than a year ago, but now with 7,000 members, was in no mood to let up.

Tom Houghton, North West co-ordinator of the group, said: "There will be plans for action in the future. We intend to heighten the whole thing. We intend to keep the blockade on the fuel terminals and will highlight the problem further."

Mr Houghton explained that farmers, whose livelihoods had been squeezed by the BSE scare and the accompanying crisis in agriculture, no longer felt they were being listened to and had acted out of "pure desperation".

The demonstrations have largely been peaceful. But yesterday there were two arrests following an altercation between a tanker driver and a protester after the tanker's windscreen was smashed at the Stanlow refinery.

In Wales, lorry drivers picketed two refineries, but failed to prevent workers reporting for duty. The biggest demonstration was at the Texaco refinery, Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, where a convoy of 50 lorries was joined by members of the public, farmers, taxi drivers and coach operators. Production was unaffected.

At an Elf refinery near Milford Haven, a lorry carrying steel was turned away yesterday morning by another group of protesters led by 10 lorries. Production at both Welsh plants has remained unaffected, but several local garages had to close their pumps. A Tesco garage in Haverfordwest, westWales, turned customers away yesterday after running out of unleaded petrol, and two garages in Pembroke Dock shut up shop.

Other garages in Pembrokeshire are expected to follow suit as worried motorists buy up remaining supplies.

One of the organisers of the Welsh protest, Mike Greene, who runs a family haulage business in Llanelli, west Wales, said: "We may not be stopping many tankers coming in or going out, but we are still making our presence felt and getting our message across." The leaders promised an escalation of the protests today.

A major fuel chain in Bristol was forced to re-route tankers after 10 lorry drivers blockaded the city depot used by Texaco and Total Fina in the Avonmouth docks area. Another two trucks were outside a nearby Esso depot.

The Tory party seized on the protest yesterday. Shadow Transport Secretary Archie Norman told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I sympathise with the protesters and I understand very strongly the passionate feelings that are running on this issue. But I cannot condone direct action. I feel the person to be protesting at is Gordon Brown and the Government, not the oil refinery, and Gordon Brown doesn't live at the refinery."

The Government's role was defended by Scottish Secretary Dr John Reid, who said that while he understood drivers' concerns about prices: "Over the past two years, out of the 19p increase, 17p of that has come from the increase in the price of crude oil from around $10 per barrel to $30 per barrel." He said it was a "myth" that the "staggering increase" in petrol prices was a result of taxation. Dr Reid's remarks came as the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met in Vienna.

Oil ministers from Saudi Arabia and Iran, the top two exporters in OPEC, said they supported increasing output by "at least" 500,000 barrels a day. A decision is due today.

But energy analysts still warn that markets need at least 800,000 extra barrels a day to drive prices down from the current 10-year high.

Direct action campaigning has traditionally been associated with discontented Frenchmen, but appears to have taken hold in Britain's rural community. Another group, the Rural Action Group, set up by a Sussex farmer furious at the Government's attempts to outlaw foxhunting, plans to continue a campaign of action.

On September 17, the group plans to drive horse boxes, cattle lorries and trucks at 40mph along the inside lane of the M25 as a "warning shot" to ministers. They do not intend to block the road, but are using the day as a threat of further action in future if their complaints are not listened to.