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Protest Gas Prices?

Will tight oil supplies affect pump prices? How high will they go before we protest gas prices?

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Will Expensive Fuel Eventually Cause Us To Protest Gas Prices?

Some of us are ancient—old enough to remember the US gas crisis of the 1970s. The high prices, the lines at the gas stations, the empty pumps—the experience was like a bad movie we saw long ago and have been happy to forget about since.

Recently, we once again have seen a steady rise in diesel and gasoline prices, though to date we have been spared any noteworthy shortages. What happens if prices continue to rise and/or serious gas shortages do occur, with the inevitable ripple effects to our on-demand, petroleum-driven economy? If things get bad enough, will we invoke our constitutionally guaranteed right to protest gas prices? Would it do any good, or would it only make matters worse? Would it even be allowed by a government increasingly intolerant of protest?

Back in 2000, there was a major fuel-price protest in Europe. It was little reported in the United States, but it was a huge event, and it provides a glimpse of what could be coming: ever-higher fuel prices, gas price protests, fuel shortages, economic disruption, and increasingly draconian measures implemented by governments to keep things under control. In our guest article today, Kathy McMahon of the blog site Peak Oil Blues recaps the events of 2000 and weaves in additional info from today that makes this piece very relevant to our situation in the US.

~    ~    ~

Remember, Remember, the 5th of September, 2000
by by Kathy McMahon,

Remember, remember, the fifth of September,
Petrol sedition and plot.
I know of no reason why the petrol malfeasance
Should ever be forgot.

A year before 9/11/2001 happened in the USA, a terrifying incident of a different sort happened in Europe that forever changed how political leaders across the world would understand the essential role oil resources play in developed nations.

It started with a few angry French fishermen who found it harder and harder


In a twist on a popular British rhyme, the following is often quoted on Guy Fawkes Night in Britain, in memory of the Gunpowder Plot:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

The above rhyme was referenced heavily in the excellent 2005 movie V for Vendetta. (See GP review below)

to make a living with the price of gas increasing, and they blamed government taxation. They were so angry, they protested by blocking the English Channel entrance to a port, which prevented oil tankers from delivering fuel supplies.

The protest quickly and spontaneously spread to farmers and truck drivers, who blocked oil refineries and distribution depots. The situation became so serious, according to one report, that the government considered using police and troops to force the removal of blockades. But massive public sympathy for the action—estimated at 88% in favor—made such an option all but impossible. An aide to France's prime minister told the press, "If we can avoid a direct confrontation like that we will. One knows how that kind of thing begins. One doesn't know how it ends."

While the French government was able to appease the striking fisherman, farmers, and truck drivers with gasoline-tax concessions, the anger at high gas prices ignited or threatened similar protests in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Hungary, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and the UK. In the Belgian capital, they played tennis on the empty streets. In Munich, a couple of dozen tractors and trucks stopped traffic while demonstrators waved banners demanding that the government "Stop the Rip Off."

The gas-price protests struck the hearts of many citizens worldwide, and they took to the streets to announce their frustration and rage. If people heard about the petrol protests, they enthusiastically started their own, even when government flattery urged them to do otherwise. For example, speaking for the Blair government, Scottish Secretary John Reid reassured the press that Britain would not experience mass disruption because "the people of this country do not resort to the French way of doing things"—thus contrasting the "anarchic Gaul" with the "law-abiding Briton." But flattery wasn't enough. Oil had reached new heights of $34.50 a barrel and 84p a liter. Protesters blockaded British fuel refineries and distribution depots, and within days, the protests had created a fuel crisis that brought the United Kingdom to a halt and nearly destroyed large sections of its economy.

This was a gas price protest that caused fuel shortages affecting millions of Europeans, yet, if you lived in the USA, you probably never heard about or knew the extent of those two weeks. There were no flashy newspaper headlines, no breaking stories in TV news.

When The World Is Running Down . . .

What happened from September 5-14, 2000 was a wake-up call to those entrusted with protecting the functioning of civilization. The protests started on September 5, and the Channel Tunnel was blockaded on September 6. The next day, the first oil refinery, at Stanlow, Chesire, was blockaded. Protests spread rapidly, with more refineries being blockaded on September 8. On September 9, a nation-wide panic buying of fuel began. On September 10, the protests had closed Britain's largest oil terminal at Kingsbury, West Midlands. Huge queues at gas stations were reported, and within days, over half of Britain's gas stations were shut down. By September 12, protesters had blocked six of the UK's eight refineries.

When the first deliveries of gas finally began again on September 15th, 90% of gas stations were without fuel. Even though all protest had stopped, motorists were warned that they could still face a wait of up to two weeks for gas due to the "massive logistical problem" posed by the backlog.

The impact on critical infrastructure was devastating. Food didn't get delivered to supermarket shelves. Ambulance services stopped, as did blood supplies to hospitals. One hospital ran out of stitches and many more complained about being unable to move hazardous materials from their facilities, thus creating health risks. Medicines were not delivered to pharmacies. ATM machines weren't loaded with money. The financial impact of the week-long fuel drought was estimated to top 1 billion.

Despite a five percent increase in ridership on public transportation (causing overcrowding), trains and buses were required to reduce frequency or stop service on many lines because of lack of fuel or drivers who couldn't get to work. Hospital personnel shortages also caused all but emergency hospital care to be cancelled. The ambulances that did run were told to keep their speed below 34 km/hr to conserve fuel.

Food sales increased 300%, and as the sight of empty shelves became common, panic buying increased. By September 13th, having no bread or milk, a number of supermarkets began rationing food purchases.

Postal services were gradually reduced and "seriously threatened." Guaranteed next-day delivery was suspended, and plans had to be put in place to ensure that social security checks were delivered to those dependent on them.

Other businesses were equally troubled: Industry leaders noted that large parts of the economy, including steel and motor manufacturers, faced the threat of cutbacks and shutdowns had the fuel crisis lasted any longer. Car manufacturers were within a week of shutdown by the time supplies started flowing again. Defense and aerospace industries were also within a week of "serious problems," and steel makers had been on the brink of a 40% reduction in output. Some companies started reducing the size and scope of their operations.

Aftermath—The UK Government Plan

Seeing the havoc their actions had caused, the demonstrators abandoned their protests and gave the government a 60-day deadline to reduce the fuel tax. But in contrast to the actions of the French government, the British government vowed that no concessions would be made. Instead, they directed efforts toward actions that would ensure no disruption of fuel supplies would happen again. Together with oil company executives, government ministers, and police, they outlined a Memorandum of Understanding. Among the memo's provisions was a list of "essential users" who would be provided with fuel, should such a crisis reoccur:

  • armed forces;
  • prisons;
  • coastguard and lifeboats;
  • fuel and energy suppliers;
  • essential financial services, including those involved in the delivery of cash and checks;
  • essential workers at nuclear sites;
  • water, sewer, and drainage;
  • central and local government;
  • refuse collection and industrial waste;
  • health care and social work;
  • funeral services;
  • emergency services;
  • food industry;
  • public transport;
  • licensed taxis;
  • airports and airlines;
  • postal, media, telecommunications;
  • special schools and colleges for the disabled;
  • essential foreign diplomatic workers;
  • agriculture, veterinary, and animal welfare.

For security reasons, details of how these plans (and others like them) were to be implemented would not be made public.

Lessons Learned, Lessened Freedoms?

The first lesson learned from these British "Petrol Days of Peril" was that no one could have imagined the tremendous disruption a brief pause in fossil-fuel supply could cause. Oil is so fundamental to the economy that it strained the imagination of those empowered to manage the crisis. The entire structure of Western Civilization rests on fossil fuels.

The second lesson is that when the cost of fossil fuel rises, it angers people; and, to quote the protagonist in V for Vendetta: "The people shouldn't be afraid of their government; the government should be afraid of their people." And afraid of the people they are.

It became clear to the British government—and to those leaders in many other developed countries who heeded the warning—that a robust and collaborative mechanism had to be put into place to protect the functioning of its economy and critical infrastructures. A powerful commitment to the "normal" supply of oil fuels became a national priority. No public protest could or would be allowed if it impacted oil supplies.


I would like to stress that this disruption occurred when common British subjects engaged in public protest, not as a result of a "terrorist attack." It's also worth noting that while the British government blamed the protesters for the woes, polls taken after September 5 overwhelmingly blamed the government in general (75%) and Tony Blair in particular (78%) for the situation. All over Europe, citizens expressed sympathy for workers whose livelihoods were being threatened by increasing gas prices.

    -- KM

When these protests crippled one of the world's most powerful nations—when in nine days, "London Bridge came tumbling down"—those entrusted with the power to act quickly came up with a Plan B that listed the fuel-worthy few.

Will this plan be successful as the price of oil and the temper of citizens continue to climb? What compromises will our governments make on our behalf to energy companies in order to ensure a steady supply? Will we be content to have decisions being made for us by the same industries that supply us with the energy we find so essential? How independent can oil and gas companies really be when they are so well aware of their dwindling resources and how essential they are to the functioning of our infrastructure? Are we entitled to have a say on how the last remaining drops of oil are spread around the globe or even to know that fossil fuels are running out? Can our citizens be allowed to freely protest gas prices in ways that create such a dramatic infrastructure impact?


Angry American colonists started a revolution when they destroyed the commodity that symbolized a financial burden on them by a governmental body that no longer represented their interests. The government responded in a repressive way that further enraged the people. It ended in a bloody battle no one expected and an independence from a government the colonists had no initial interest in separating from. Will oil be the new tea party?

With the coming decline of oil supplies, we are facing a life-or-death situation that creates both an intellectual and emotional strain. The British Petrol Sedition gave us a glimpse of the interlocking and devastating impacts that are wrought by energy shortages. The recap of those events tells a frightening tale of the power that can be wielded by a small number of emotional, angry people who feel that their very livelihoods are being challenged by high oil prices and who want their governments to do something about it. It tells an equally chilling tale of a British government response of stepping behind closed doors and, to quote UK Home Secretary Jack Straw, of assuring the British people that the government's priorities are "public order, public safety and, above all, ensuring a free flow of petrol into our economy and our society."

Instead of ensuring a way of managing an increasingly costly fuel supply, the government instead wants to protect the oil supply from the effects of its own angry citizens. Instead of engaging in frank discussions about how dependent our civilization is on oil for its very existence and how petroleum supplies are becoming increasingly tight relative to demand, the government decided instead to sit with the power elite, police, and oil company executives and decide how to protect the oil. But if, in the words of Mr. Straw, there can be no public order or safety without petrol, can there also be no discussion that our petrol is in peril?

Maybe the writers for V for Vendetta were right when they talked about symbols. Oil is a symbol, as is the act of blocking access to it. Symbols are given power by people. A symbol, in and of itself is powerless, but with enough people behind it, the symbolic act of stopping access to it can change the world. I believe it has. The question now becomes whether the people of the world, dependent on that symbol for our very notion of culture and civilization, can recognize it and begin to modify it.


It is unfortunate that the events of 2000 are not discussed more in public forums throughout the world. The deafening silence on the part of the US press then and the wilting availability of web-based information now are both troubling, given that this was a major protest affected millions of Europeans.

    -- KM

Fuel for Thought . . .

It is clear that delivering fossil fuel to those who can afford it is of utmost importance to the keepers of our culture. They have learned the painful lessons about what happens when the flow of oil stops. People in the "peak oil community" know that the flow of oil will stop eventually but that before it does, oil will become wildly expensive. The events of September 5th, 2000, tell us that most of us will be left off the list of those who are granted preferential access to the dwindling resource. If we pay attention to the actions of our leaders, we will learn that they will protect the flow of oil first, our safety second, and our freedoms last.

The Petrol Sedition was a peaceful protest by 2000 British citizens who decided to stand up and voice their opinions, not hard-line radicals intent on overthrowing a government. Future protests resulting from the rising price of oil and gas are a given. Rising oil prices make it increasingly difficult to live as the price of everything—from transportation, food, medicine, and keeping warm—skyrockets. Now, more than ever, we need to voice our opposition to being excluded from the closed-door sessions of decision-makers. We need to see the Petrol Sedition as a preview of coming attractions, because that's how the governments of the world see it.

Yes, I believe that the 5th of September caused great worry for our elected officials, but instead of boldly telling us the truth about what's coming, they are building detention centers. Instead of establishing massive subsidies for alternative energy production, they give tax breaks to oil companies who willingly pump out the last trickles from the ground.

Ultimately, however, we, the people of the world, are the only ones who can hold our governments responsible. Human nature is such that government and elected officials can do no better than to secure their own continuity in office and maintain the power structures that currently exist. We can't expect these institutions to offer us a way out of the evaporating oil supply. They will not do it, and instead will work (in vain) to try to ensure that things continue as they are.

Like frogs in increasingly warmer and warmer waters, we can wait to be boiled to death if we stay immobile and don't start asking why these things are happening. If 84p was too great a price to pay for petrol, why is the more recent price of 96p acceptable? We need to see things as they really are, to speak up and to discuss what is happening among ourselves.

Ultimately, we need to continue to share ideas, to see things in alternative ways, to remain seditious. We need to look to those in our own communities and ask:

  • How can we decrease our dependence on fossil fuels?
  • How can we feed ourselves and provide for our basic needs in an energy-constrained future?

While it is easy to fear a government that covertly puts into place "security action plans" to protect their structures from the very people who empower those structures, it is harder to see how increasingly powerless governments are to control public discourse and human actions. Citizens now network by mobile phones, faxes, CB radios, and the internet. Instead of joining "organized groups" that can be easily infiltrated and monitored, citizens can become spontaneously a part of a network of like-minded people. Governments who used to wire-tap "seditious organizations" now have to buy telephone records for an entire country.

    -- KM

While the solutions need to be implemented locally, discussions are paradoxically most lively on an international level. Our problems are the same—global trade has impacted us all in similar ways. Corporate reach is global. Therefore, our conversations will be most effective when we know what others around the globe are doing to search for solutions. We gain power by refusing to accept without response what the corporate media calls "history-making events." We must break the silence and share thoughts and ideas.

To quote one last time from the comic-book-turned-movie V for Vendetta:

"There are of course those who do not want us to speak. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the annunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance, and depression. And where once you had the freedom to object, think, and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror."


Kathy McMahon is founder and operator of Peak Oil Blues a web site dedicated to helping you explore, analyze, and learn how to cope with your reactions to the reality of a peak-oil future; to help you separate "mental preparation" from just "acting mental"; to help you build the kind of world you want to live in.

You can comment on this article here.

Another excellent article at the Peak Oil Blues site is The Psychology of Money.   -- GP

Grinning Planet Wrap-up

Could such protests of gas prices happen in the US? Just remember what grocery stores are like right before and after a major snowstorm—and imagine that as a permanent condition. Gas shortages, price increases, disruptive protests, food hoarding, and all the rest of the ugly scenario are just geology, economics, and psychology coming together to force us to start making smarter choices.

We in the US may be more reserved than Europeans when it comes to protesting (or holding our leaders accountable). But soon enough, two things will be obvious to everyone in the US:

  • Gas prices will only be going higher, with regular shortages starting to crop up.
  • Our politicians have been lying about future fuel supplies and selling us pain-free, supply-side solutions they knew (or should have known) could not hope to keep pace with demand (or even remain level in the long run).

What will we do then? Or should we do it now?

Grinning Planet publish date: 08-AUG-2007

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