Why Big Oil Backed the Fuel Protests in Europe

September 20th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

When I arrived in London on Sunday, the city was like a jittery heroin junkie who had just shot up. The panic that gripped Britain when a coalition of truckers and farmers blockaded the nation’s oil refineries had been replaced with an unreal calm. The gas was flowing again and, at the stations, dazed customers injected their tanks with rivers of unleaded.

As is the case with any powerful addiction, the fuel crisis hasn’t disappeared; it has been, momentarily, sated. Protests against oil taxes are cropping up across Europe and they may well return to Britain after the moratorium called by the truck drivers expires in two months. Canadian truckers are even threatening to mount copycat actions.

Watched from a distance, the oil blockades in Britain look like spontaneous popular uprisings: regular working folk, frightened for their livelihoods, getting together to say, "Enough’s enough." But before this David and Goliath story goes any further, it deserves a closer reading.

There’s no doubt that the fuel protests began when a couple hundred farmers and truckers formed blockades outside the oil refineries. But the protests became effective only when the multinational oil companies that run those refineries decided to treat those rather small barricades as immovable obstacles, preventing them from delivering oil to gas stations.

The companies—Shell, BP, Texaco et al. —claimed they wouldn’t ask their tanker drivers to drive past the blockades because they feared for their "safety." The claim is bizarre. First, no violence was reported. Second, these oil companies have no problem drilling pipelines through contested lands in Colombia and political revolts directed against them in Nigeria. When it comes to extracting oil from the earth, there seems to be no danger, including warfare, that oil multinationals are unwilling to risk. Third, the truckers’ "pickets" were illegal blockades since the protesters were not members of trade unions—unlike the cases in which union members form legal pickets and companies hire scabs to cross them anyway.

So why would the oil companies tacitly co-operate with anti-oil protesters? Easy. So long as attention is focused on high oil taxes, rather than on soaring oil prices, the pressure is off the multinationals and the OPEC cartel. The focus is also on access to oil—as opposed to the more threatening issue of access to less polluting, more sustainable energy sources than oil.

Furthermore, the oil companies know that, if the truckers get their tax cut, as they did in France, oil will be cheaper for consumers to buy, which will mean more oil will be sold. In other words, Big Oil stands to increase its profits by taking money out of the public purse—money now spent, in part, on dealing with the problems created by Big Oil.

More mysterious has been the government response to the illegal trucker protests. While Tony Blair has not caved in to demands for lower taxes (yet), he didn’t clear the roads either, a fact all the more striking considering the swift police crackdowns against other direct-action protests in Britain and around the world.

The oil blockades in Britain and France were enormously costly. Final figures aren’t in, but the protests likely caused more real economic damage than every Earth First!, Greenpeace and anti-free trade protest combined. And yet, on Britain’s roads last week, there was none of the pepper spray, batons or rubber bullets now used when labour, human-rights and environmental activists stage roadblocks that cause only a small fraction of the fuel protest’s disruption. "We need to maintain the rule of law," the police invariably say as they clear the roadways, stifling the protesters’ messages while painting them as threats to our collective safety.

Not this time. William Hague, leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, characterized the men who closed Britain’s rural schools and partially immobilized its hospitals as "fine upstanding citizens." Perhaps the only "upstanding" way to protest these days is not out of concern for the broader good but out of pure self-interest.

What happened last week was a tax revolt on the roadway. The participants wanted a break on their taxes and happened to park big pieces of machinery in the middle of the road. That’s not political activism. It’s vigilante capitalism.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail