UK fuel shortage questions: will Russia’s isolation disrupt UK petrol supply?

PM Boris Johnson travels to Saudi Arabia to discuss opening up the taps, as MPs hear of possible fuel rationing

While UK fuel prices have rocketed following Russia’s war on Ukraine, we’ve so far been spared fuel shortages at UK petrol and diesel pumps. In a move to try and guarantee supplies as the conflict continues, PM Boris Johnson is meeting rulers of oil producing states in the Middle East, in an effort to persuade them to increase production. 

Talks will include a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s ruler Mohammed bin Salman, in spite of criticism from some quarters that Saudi human rights abuses make Western nations’ reliance on Saudi oil as morally questionable as the current reliance on Russia under president Vladimir Putin.

  • UK petrol and diesel prices: oil price softens but fuel hits £2 per litre

“We’ve got to get ourselves off Russian hydrocarbons,” Mr Johnson told a Sky News reporter. “They’re a massive part of the global market for hydrocarbons, helping to drive the price.

“We need to talk to other producers about how we can move away from that dependence. Vladimir Putin over the last years has been like a pusher, feeding an addiction in Western countries to use hydrocarbons. We need to get ourselves off that addiction.”

Could fuel rationing happen?

As the Ukranian crisis continues, the spectre of diesel rationing could be on the cards within weeks, at least according to some in the oil industry. Analysts who were quizzed on 14 March by MPs from the Treasury select committee included Dr Amrita Sen from research company Energy Aspects. She said its experts thought the oil price could easily rise by 50 per cent and, without any intervention by the government in the form of reduced fuel duty, that could mean petrol prices going up to £2.40 a litre. 

Dr Sen also suggested diesel could rise even further to £3 per litre, as it’s used more heavily by industry and the UK relies on Russia for 18 per cent of stocks. She said diesel rationing was already likely in Germany before the end of the month, and raised the spectre of a similar situation developing in the UK. 

Less petrol than diesel comes to the UK from Russia, so there’s less fear of rationing. Nonetheless, Nathan Piper, head of oil and gas research at Investec Bank, told MPs that consumers needed to get ready for continued price rises.  

However, in spite of the gloomy predictions, the market price for oil has dropped back to around $100 dollars a barrel from its high last week approaching $140 dollars, so there’s a reasonable expectation that petrol prices should soon fall back too.

What started the last petrol shortage?

The last fuel crisis in the UK was in the autumn of 2021 when panic-buying on forecourts was instigated by BP’s announcement that its tanker driver shortage meant it would struggle to fulfil some deliveries.

At the time the closures were more of an inconvenience than a crisis, as neighbouring filling stations are typically served by different suppliers. However, the Road Haulage Association warned drivers to expect more temporary petrol station closures in the coming weeks as the industry struggled to fill driver vacancies; panic buying started soon afterwards.

The government responded to the worsening situation by relaxing competition rules for the oil industry, which meant oil firms were temporarily able to work together to manage stocks and distribution. The government also provided army drivers to continue fuel deliveries, and 6,000 temporary visas were offered to HGV drivers from overseas.

Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport told the BBC he had a simple message for drivers: “Carry on as normal, there’s no shortage of fuel in the refineries. This is a systemic longer term problem which has been massively exacerbated by the lack of HGV driver testing [due to Covid]. The fuel is there, it can continue to flow.”

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