Petrol Panic II – taking on the barriers to climate action

12 Oct 2021 james
Military personnel at BP’s Buncefield Oil terminal near Hemel Hempstead, Monday 4th October

Week two of the Petrol Panic – Monday 4th October. It looks like the pumps are working as normal in the BP petrol station at 232 Priory Road in Anfield, Liverpool, fed by road tankers filled at the gantries of Stanlow Refinery, 12 miles to south on the banks of the Mersey. But the Petrol Retailers Association reports that one in five stations in London and South East are still low on fuel. And the government has deployed 200 army personnel to drive the fuel tankers of multinationals such as Hoyer GMBH, as they fan out from oil terminals like BP Oil at Buncefield, Hemel Hempstead. This fuel depot, just 8 miles north of the M25, is itself fed by pipelines – one from Stanlow Refinery and another from the Thames estuary terminal at Coryton.

Into this second week runs the nervousness of the cities. Since Thursday 23rd September the mood in London has been febrile with news of fights in petrol queues and a stabbing on forecourt only just avoided. It is a reminder of our petroleum addiction and an acute echo of the tanker blockades of 2000 when there were fears of supermarkets running empty and cashpoints not being refilled. And two decades later these anxieties come midst the worries of empty shelves driven by Brexit and electricity and gas prices.

In the political commentary, concerns over the rising cost of living are set against the ‘green agenda’. Some blame the high price of electricity on the increasing role of wind power. Others blame the direct actions by Insulate Britain for the panic at the pumps and this is utilised by politicians calling for criminalisation of such protest. There’s the memory of the French experience with the Gilets Jaunes. Will attempts to constrain the carbon emissions of the transport sector by increasing fuel taxes invoke a massive public backlash? Is the sheer visceral stress that breaks out across the UK after only 24 hours of questionable fuel supply a forewarning of such revolts in the future? Does the sense of the addiction to petrol ward off any politician in power from actually legislating to constrain petrol sales?


Hoyer Group tanker at Trafford Wharf oil terminal, Manchester on Tuesday 28th September

The practicalities of crisis – a lack of HGV drivers for the fuel tankers – demonstrates the weakness of the government and indeed the state. If there’s a fire, the state has the power to put it out – it sends in the fire brigade, a public service. When there’s a lack of fuel, the state lacks the tools to remedy this – for the distribution of petrol is not a public service. It was not always this way, during World War II and for many years later the distribution of fuel was effectively nationalised under the POOL system. Indeed until the 1980s the UK state had a hand in it via the government’s 51% ownership of BP. Now the distribution of fuel is entirely in private hands, to a radical degree, and this limits the power of the state to deal with the crisis and assist its citizens.

The challenge can be seen most acutely at the local level. Consider two petrol stations in still fuel-febrile South London, at 357-361 Lewisham High Street and 360 Verdant Lane in Catford, both branded Shell.

The two garages lie at the edge of Rushey Green Ward, and close to the Catford Gyratory road system. Here the A205 and A21 intersect with Brownhill Road, Bromley Road, Catford Road and Rushey Green Road. This is a key node on London’s South Circular, one of the crucial traffic arteries in the metropolis. Its significance is illustrated by the fact that it will be the border of London’s forthcoming enlarged Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ). In just a few days time, on the 25th October 2021, this will be an electronic gateway, the place where the exhausts of all vehicles passing further into the city will be monitored to ensure they abide by low emissions standards. It will be the front line in the battle against air pollution and respiratory disease in the metropolis.

A central part of Lewisham tackling climate change, facing the ‘green agenda’, will undoubtedly require a battle against cars, and especially petrol fuelled cars. Perhaps the Catford Gyratory will become a tool in a campaign to ban all petrol engines in the heart of London by 2030? This gateway could monitor transport on the roads and ensure only electric vehicles pass the checkpoint. But there are forces that would resist such a move – not only the driving public but also the owners of the existing petroleum infrastructure.

Shell branded by MFG owned petrol station, Catford, South London

Look more closely at Shell Lewisham Petrol Station at 357-361 Lewisham High Street and Shell Catford Petrol Station at 360 Verdant Lane in Catford. Although these are both ‘Shell’ petrol stations, the only thing the company owns there is the brand – on the signs over the forecourts, on the pumps, on the shirts of the people serving behind the tills. The brand is leased by the owner of the two stations the Motor Fuel Group (MFG), which runs the largest number of service stations in the UK. This company is itself owned by a private equity company in New York. This part of the fossil fuel infrastructure of Lewisham is owned by foreign-based capital, that is consequently largely beyond the reach of the UK government, undoubtedly pays little or no tax in the UK and is entirely invisible to British civil society.

Both of these stations are supplied by road tanker. Those trucks, that have been at the center of the media around the Petrol Panic, usually deliver both petrol and diesel at least once in every 24 hours, normally at night. For there is limited storage capacity on each of the two garages, as was illustrated after 24th September when following exceptionally high numbers of drivers wanting to fill up, the petrol stations quickly began to run dry.

The road tankers are usually bearing the Shell logo, but once again the oil corporation does not own the vehicles nor employ the drivers. Shell merely leases the logo to the multinational that runs these trucks, XPO Logistics, Hoyer or another. XPO is a private equity company, also headquartered in the US, in Connecticut. Therefore another part of the fossil fuel infrastructure of Lewisham is owned by foreign-based capital. Undoubtedly the company pays little or no tax in the UK and is entirely invisible to British civil society.

So where do the tankers come from? Things get a little less clear at this point. They could come from a number of places – Buncefield Terminal north or London, or more likely the Oikos Storage on Canvey Island, the Esso terminal at Purfleet or Thames Oil Port at Coryton. All three of the latter are in South Essex. Thames Oil Port, on the former site of the BP Coryton Refinery (from where a pipeline runs to Buncefield), is owned by Greenergy, a private equity company based in London which is itself owned by Brookfield Business Partners another private company based in Toronto, Canada. Brookfield is reputedly linked to the interests of the Saudi Royal Family. Yet another part of the fossil fuel infrastructure that supplies Lewisham is owned by foreign-based capital. Brookfield (despite being reminiscent of ‘The Archers’) is beyond the reach of the UK government. Undoubtedly Brookfield, and possibly Greenergy, pay little or no tax in the UK and again are entirely invisible to British civil society. The Thames Oil Port terminal is supplied by a sea going tanker, bringing fuel up The Channel and into the mouth of the Thames, delivered from refineries from all parts of the world. (All of these stories are teased out in our book – Crude Britannia.)

So the state is beholden to the private equity companies. It relies on their ability to deliver fuel to the nation and when, through poor management and planning, they fail to do so, the state sends in the army to assist. The army helping a private corporation such as Hoyer or XPO to overcome its labour shortages presumably caused by their drive to reduce costs and increase profit on capital. The public sector bails out the private sector.

What does this mean for any attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from transport? It means that such efforts are not only squeezed by public anxiety over fuel supply, vividly reported by the press, but are also squeezed by the owners of the petrol infrastructure, entirely unreported and thus far from public gaze and control.

Rushey Green Ward in Lewisham, where the Catford Gyratory lies, is the ward of Lewisham councillor Louise Krupski. Two and a half years ago, on 27th February 2019, the London Borough of Lewisham declared a Climate Emergency. The Motion, passed by the council, was driven by the brave Labour Councillor Tauseef Anwar and seconded by Labour Councillor Louise Krupski. A number of councillors spoke in support of the Motion, including Cllr Liam Curran and Cllr Sakina Sheikh, our Platform companion. The declaration read:

Without significant and sustained action, the world will exceed the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit before 2050. The government’s policies and programmes to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 are insufficient. Individual and collective action is needed to make this reduction. Society needs to change its laws, taxation, infrastructure and culture to recognise and meet the full cost of greenhouse gases. The public sector has a fundamental role in enabling individuals and communities to make sustainable low carbon choices.

Through this act the Council called on the Mayor and Cabinet to:

‘Pledge to do everything in its power to make Lewisham Carbon Neutral by 2030’

The bold declaration was one of a growing number of similar resolutions by other councils, as the movement for a Climate Emergency spread like wildfire across the globe. Six days before Lewisham, the City of Cambridge declared a Climate Emergency. The city mayors of Bristol and Manchester declared in November 2018 and London followed suit the next month. At the time of writing, there are 310 councils in the UK who have passed resolutions.

What does the Petrol Panic and the petrol infrastructure mean for the drive to make Lewisham Carbon Neutral? Since 2019 the council has made steps to address fuel poverty and offer grants for the installation of solar panels, but beyond looking at the emissions of the council’s own fleet of vehicles it seems little has been done to tackle the petroleum infrastructure. To do so not only faces the public’s deep anxiety about fuel supplies, but also the fact that these two (among several others) key cogs in the machine that pumps fossil fuels through the borough, these two ‘Shell’ petrol stations, are owned by foreign capital and are far beyond the reach of the UK government let alone the control of Lewisham Council. If the council tries to push against petrol-driven cars refuelling in the borough, if it tries to utilise the opportunity offered by the ULEZ, then it will need to face not only opposition from the driving public but also opposition of these capital entities.

Any move to limit or ban petrol cars in Lewisham will face an uphill campaign against many, many residents who would be critical of such a policy. This opposition can be addressed. The provision of public transport, run on electricity, can be radically increased. The Council could establish a network of electric vehicle charging points throughout the borough. There could be a well-funded and sustained cultural and social programme to encourage people out of their cars, onto buses, bicycles and their feet. Of course this requires capital and Lewisham, like all local authorities is extremely strapped for cash after years of austerity. However, some of these public initiatives could be funded by a community reinvest programme driven by the Borough Council pension fund. It could be a proud exemplar of the Green New Deal movement. Fortunately Louise Krupski is one of seven councillors who sit on the Lewisham Pensions Investment Committee.

However, it is not only the users we need to face, but also the dealers.


Brad Jacobs, CEO of XPO Logistics company, based in the US.

If there is a move to stop the sale of petrol and diesel in Lewisham, in order to achieve a Carbon Neutral borough, how will this come about? How will the Council, and civil society, put pressure on the dealers? This raises a plethora of interesting questions: Can the Council revoke the license to run the two petrol stations? Who issued these licenses or planning permissions? They may well stretch back into the 1950s or even the 1920s, but presumably it was the Council who provided the original permission. Such a move would undoubtedly invite push back from the companies behind the supply of fuel to Lewisham. Shell, MFG, XPO Logistics, Greenergy, Brookfield, will all push bank. For we can presume that their capital planning was built on an assumption of fuel consumption in Lewisham, and elsewhere in the UK, far beyond 2030. And then how does this mesh with the government’s declared intent to limit petrol driven vehicles beyond this date?

In the battle over the future of UK North Sea, currently being fought on the Cambo field, it relatively easy to conceive of the web of infrastructure that makes up the offshore oil world – the drilling rigs, the oil platforms, the pipelines, the terminals and so on. One massive system largely owned by foreign-based capital concerns. But there is a mirror of this onshore – the refineries, the terminals, the pipelines, the road tankers, the forecourts. One massive system largely owned by foreign-based capital concerns, yet rarely do we pay attention to it as a whole, and the challenge of ‘shutting it down’ seems far more challenging than that of ‘shutting down’ offshore production. What does Just Transition mean in this onshore realm?


Many thanks to Terry Macalister, Gaby Jeliazkov and Rob Noyes.

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