A week is a long time in politics as the saying goes. Certainly one Cabinet Minister must have felt that even a day seemed an eternity in the aftermath of his advice to motorists in advance of threatened industrial action by tanker drivers. Some of the advice from the Minister may have been well intentioned, but clearly it wasn’t thought through sufficiently and not surprisingly the media seized upon it.
In the chaos that followed, UKPIA and its members worked hard behind the scenes to try and catch up with the huge sudden increase in demand and liaise with DECC. There is an emergency plan for the downstream sector the National Emergency Plan Fuel which has been developed over the years by DECC in close collaboration with the industry. Like all such plans, it is designed for emergencies so doesn’t necessarily guarantee ’life as normal’, but by having some degree of advance planning in place, it aims to ensure that essential fuel supplies and a proportion of supplies for motorists can be maintained. The critical aspect for government, though, is deciding exactly what constitutes an emergency.
Compared with a decade or more ago, there is clearly less resilience in our fuel supply infrastructure not just because of fewer filling stations, distribution depots and refineries, but cost impacts such as high-value product and duty have resulted in a more ’just in time’ approach to managing stocks and deliveries. That the system is unable to cope with full-on panic-buying is no great surprise given that the fuel tank capacity of the UK’s vehicle fleet when fully topped up is roughly twice that of filling stations. Vehicles may be much more fuel-efficient these days but it makes very little short-term difference once they are running around with a full tank. To have some chance of working, the plan requires collaboration across the industry and with a number of government agencies. I’m sure there will be some actions arising from this episode not least the fact that the industry must feel it is able to communicate in confidence with DECC officials and others. In the meantime, we very much hope that the continuing negotiations between the representatives of the tanker drivers and their employers to resolve the dispute, reach a satisfactory conclusion.