British motorists protest the high cost of filling up

A second 'dump the pumps' boycott is set today, as costs for running a car keep rising.

Mary Austen looked more than a tad chagrined as she gassed up her Ford Fiesta at a service station near Heathrow Airport.

"I'm really quite ashamed," she said. "I've heard there's a petrol boycott today, but I'm picking my daughter up from Heathrow, and my tank is nearly empty."

Ms. Austen, a schoolteacher, was ashamed of failing to respond to Britain's "dump the pumps" campaign.

On Aug. 1, across Britain, an estimated one-quarter of Austen's 27 million fellow car drivers, fed up with paying around 4 ($6) a gallon for gas, did heed the unprecedented boycott call. Today British motorists are again being urged to boycott petrol stations.

Mike, a cashier at the service station Austen was using, said trade was down about 40 percent, and it was "obviously because of the dump-the-pumps campaign."

Last week in northwest England, sales were down by nearly half, the Petrol Retailers' Association said. In London the figure was 20 percent.

The protest organizers, however, failed to persuade truck drivers to join in the boycott. A planned blockade of the port of Dover in southern England attracted only 12 drivers instead of a hoped-for 200.

Dump-the-pumps organizer Garry Russell, a Web site designer who is using the Internet to coordinate the campaign, says: "I'm very happy with the first-day response.... We're planning rolling 24-hour boycotts every week. Already we're seeing results."

He was right. A service station near the Tower of London that was selling petrol at 84.9 pence ($1.27) a liter on the day of the protest had dropped its price to 79.9 pence ($1.19) the following day.

Mr. Russell says he launched his campaign to fight back against "the highest petrol prices in Europe."

"We have North Sea oil, and you might think petrol here would be cheap," he says. "But it is taxed unbelievably hard. This is literally highway robbery."

A British Treasury spokesman confirmed that 75 to 80 percent of the price of a British gallon of petrol is tax.

Through most of the 1990s, Conservative and Labour governments alike have added roughly 5 percent each year to the price of gas, citing environmental reasons.

The boost in revenue has increased funding for government health, education, and social programs, which now are heavily dependent on gas taxes. That is why the Conservative opposition has not attacked high petrol taxes. It knows that if in office it would have to rely on them as a major source of revenue.

Also, a cut in gas taxes would likely mean a rise in other taxes, especially income tax, to make up the difference - a proposition that would not be popular with the general public.

In the past year or two, however, British car drivers traveling in the rest of Europe have noticed that even in neighboring France, which has no petroleum resources of its own, petrol prices are as much as 10 percent lower than in Britain. Motorists in Northern Ireland, where UK prices apply, frequently cross the border into the Irish Republic, where petrol sells at up to 20 pence (30 cents) a gallon less.

Lately, across Britain, there have been indications that the driving public's resistance to steadily rising petrol prices has been stiffening. Russell says he decided to launch dump-the-pumps after he "sensed a change in the public mood."

Apparently in a bid to deaden the impact of the campaign, three supermarket chains cut their gas prices the day before the boycott.

Petrol companies, however, say that the campaign is having little effect on their pricing policies. A Texaco spokesman says: "There is no link between the price cuts and the protest. They would have been happening anyway, and are part of a general campaign on our part to roll back prices."

The Transport Ministry blames Middle East oil producers for the high gas prices of recent months. A Transport Ministry official spoke of "a logical inconsistency" in the dump-the-pumps protest. "Motorists may boycott petrol stations for a single day," the official said, "but they'll still need fuel. So they'll fill up the next day."

Still, the boycott has at least one gas- station manager worried. "Prices in the last few months may have been steep," says Dave Robbins, a service station manager on the A-3 highway out of London, "but at least they were fairly consistent. We could maintain a coherent pricing policy.

"If this campaign continues, we'll be under pressure to compete with neighboring stations, and our margins will be cut to the bone," he adds.

George Monbiot, a leading environmental writer, calls the boycott "wrong-headed."

"Petrol is a finite resource - and a pollutant," he says, adding: "If there are to be boycotts on Mondays, motorists will fill up on Sundays - when the smaller service stations are probably not open."

Peter Waddington, an expert in protest politics at Reading University, notes that while such protests rarely succeed, "The mere fact that motorists are not the usual kind of people to stage protests could well count in their favor."

According to the government's recent Family Expenditure Survey of 18,000 households, the cost of running a car has d or housing for the average British family, and is now the most expensive item in the domestic budget.

Four years ago, housing and food each accounted for more of the average family's income than motoring, but the price of keeping a car on the road has since risen by nearly $30 a week, from $78 a week to $108.

This compares with much smaller rises for housing, up from $86 to $102 in the same period, and food, which has gone up from $89 to $101.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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