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Monday, 13 November, 2000, 13:05 GMT
Desperate measures
Petrol graphic
Panic gripped the nation
As the fuel lobby convoy makes its way towards London, the UK seems to have escaped a second filling station crisis. Not everyone is so lucky though.

For a while there, things were getting nasty.

Faced with dry petrol pumps, and long queues snaking away from any filling station that did have fuel left, some motorists revealed a darker side to their characters.

Thefts from forecourts - so-called "drive-offs" - have soared, police say. In London alone they are up from 3,500 to 5,000 in a year.

policeman at petrol station
Action stations: Petrol crime is booming
Many garages are investing in thousands of pounds in security equipment, including a computerised number-plate recognition system first developed to counter the threat of terrorism.

A spokesman for Norfolk police, who have seen a 200% rise in drive-offs, said because of rising prices, petrol is now a commodity worth stealing.

Even more unsavoury than that, though, are thefts from the emergency services.

Private cars have similarly seen a rise in siphoning - and in Devon an expensive motorbike was stolen so that 3 of petrol in its tank could be purloined.

And last week one London driver who got caught out during the September shortages was found buying 56p of petrol.

When a garage attendant asked him what he was doing, it turned out that the man had got into the routine of keeping his tank completely full by topping up every time he passed a filling station.

Tax Scams

One temptation for criminals when fuel supplies are short is to use so-called "Red Diesel" the special reduced tax fuel stored in large quantities on farms.

The fuel is much cheaper than diesel at the forecourt but contains a dye which makes illegal use easy to detect. In the past con artists based in the Republic of Ireland have cashed in by supplying the fuel to UK garages. HM Customs say they are monitoring the situation carefully.

Red Diesel - The facts
Red diesel is chemically marked and dyed red to show that it has borne a reduced rate of excise duty.
UK excise duty rate on red diesel is 3.13 pence per litre against 48.82 pence per litre for diesel road fuel.
Petrol fuelled vehicles cannot use red diesel. It seriously damages the engine
It is illegal to sell red diesel at the rebated rate for use in normal road vehicles
However, the problems of protest, crime and scams resulting from rising prices and high levels of petrol in the UK are slight compared to what has been taking place in other countries around the world.

In Australia the government is battling with petrol tax avoidance on a massive scale. The introduction of high fuel levies designed to reduce petrol use, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions earlier this year led to garages diluting petrol with zero-tax Toluene paint-stripper and pocketing the difference.

The New South Wales Government "named and shamed" six Sydney petrol stations it found selling petrol containing up to 57% Toluene.

Officials have responded with plans to increase taxes on paint-stripper and other easily available chemicals such as dry cleaning fluids and solvents that can be added to petrol.

Thousands Die

In Nigeria the hugely dangerous crime of breaking open pipelines so that gushing jets of petrol can be caught in buckets for sale at the roadside is widespread.

The tanker drivers puncture the pipeline and pump gasoline into their vehicles and then drive off, leaving fuel gushing out. Villagers then come in with their buckets and jerry cans

Nigerian fire official
Thousands of Nigerians have been killed or injured in recent years as a result of accidents related to pipeline tapping. Fires and explosions have become so common that fire services often do not turn up when called. Normal practice is to turn off the supply and let the fires burn themselves out.

This year more than 300 Nigerians died in two enormous pipeline fires left to burn by the local fire service: "When we heard the explosion and saw the raging fire we considered it as normal because the breaking of pipelines and siphoning of fuel is happening all the time," an eye witness said.

As many as 1,000 people died in a similar disaster near the Nigerian town of Jesse in 1998.

Woman running
Danger: results of petrol theft in Nigeria
In the UK, despite some claims of intimidation, protests against high fuel prices have been peaceful. This has not been the case in South Africa where the town Ermelo, east of Pretoria, was almost "blown off the map" in May by protesters who hijacked two petrol tankers.

Both tankers were set on fire by protesters who torched several metres of petrol-soaked bandages as a fuse leading to open tanker valves. One exploded and the other was then set on a collision course with the town's railway yard and petrol depot.

The protesters were demanding the end to an 18 cents rise in petrol duty designed to curb South Africa's increasing reliance on expensively imported petrol.

"People should realise that petrol companies don't control the petrol price and certainly don't benefit from price increases. The government sets prices and also gets all the benefits from all hikes," said depot owner James Setloadi, surveying the smouldering wreckage.



See also:

10 Nov 00 | Europe
10 Nov 00 | UK Politics
19 Jul 00 | Africa
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