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EDITIONS
Thursday, 14 September, 2000, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Oil companies: Heroes or villains?
Oil tanker at Stanlow, Cheshire
Police open supply lines at Stanlow refinery, Cheshire
As the tankers begin to roll again at Britain's oil refineries, the big oil companies stand accused of siding with protesters who have brought the country grinding to a halt.

Shell, BP and the other high street fuel giants are thought to have put little pressure on their drivers to leave depots for the first four days of the crisis.

Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that the companies' reluctance to break picket lines without police backing allowed the blockade to escalate.The oil companies say their drivers have been at risk of attack by protesters.

But many on the picket lines believed the companies were secretly backing their cause - and had as much to gain from the protests as they did.

'Completely unhelpful'

The oil companies have been reluctant to talk about their role in the crisis.

Dr Chris Gibson-Smith, BP's managing director, told the BBC's Newsnight that allegations of collusion were 'completely unhelpful'.

"It's not in our interests and we would never do it. It's not what we want," he said.

Dr Gibson-Smith said tanker drivers had been concerned for their safety as pickets assembled outside refineries at the end of last week - and that was why they avoided any confrontation.

A Shell spokesman echoed this view: "There has been a real safety issue since this protest started on Thursday night."

Another oil industry insider suggests that the "carnival atmosphere" reported by many protesters is not the whole picture.

"There have been various incidents throughout this dispute which have not necessarily been reported.

"There have been threats and intimidation," he said.

Picketing farmers
Protesting Welsh farmers take a break from the picket line at Stanlow
But the protesters who were at the depot gates tell a different story.

Stuart Butterworth, operations director of road haulage company TDS Morgan Freight, who was part of the protest at Shell's Stanlow plant in Cheshire, is in no doubt which side the oil giant was on.

"I think Shell are secretly behind us.

"Their general attitude towards us has been very good.

"They invited the police on the site, but they have not put any pressure on them to take action.

"After all, the oil companies are losing out as much as we are. They are taxed on the oil from the minute it comes out of the ground right through to the petrol station forecourt."

'Government could make life difficult'

But industry analysts believe the big oil companies have little to gain from a cut in fuel duty.


"I think Shell are secretly behind us. Their general attitude towards us has been very good

Fuel protester
Tessa Kohn-Speyer, an oil analyst with Barclays stockbrokers, said that gains would be minimal: "If the price at the pump drops from 80 pence to 78 pence a litre, the oil companies will still receive 20%."

The oil companies have resisted the temptation to cast themselves as the consumer's champion in the battle over petrol tax.

Ms Kohn-Speyer says: "They know that the Government could make life difficult for them if they did."

A Shell spokesman says: "We find ourselves in the unenviable position of being caught between a disparate group of protesters on the one hand, and the Government on the other."


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