- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

LONDON — Governments across Europe have launched a series of urgent measures to try to deal with soaring fuel prices that have triggered panic buying and threats of massive protests by thousands of angry car owners, truck drivers, farmers and even fishermen.

While Americans grumble about paying $2.96 a gallon for gasoline, European fury comes at a higher cost. Prices have climbed to between $5 and $7 per gallon in Britain, France and Germany, and $7.50 in Turkey. It is $6.56 in the Netherlands, $5.66 in Sweden and $5.28 in Hungary.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Britain’s treasury chief, yesterday called on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which controls three-quarters of the world’s oil reserves, to produce another 500,000 barrels a day to help bring down prices.

French President Jacques Chirac said oil companies already were reaping bumper profits and demanded that they cut gasoline and diesel prices far more than the few cents that some have reluctantly agreed to.

France also says it intends to offer tax breaks and refunds on fuel worth about $36.6 million to ease the plight of its beleaguered — and politically powerful — farmers.

In Poland and Hungary, the governments have promised cuts in gasoline taxes, and Belgium has pledged to reimburse some taxes on home-heating fuel.

But the unease is growing across Europe in line with the cost of driving cars and trucks, and powering fishing boats and farm tractors as it scales record heights.

Desperate to avoid skyrocketing pump prices, some Germans were filling their tanks with cheaper home-heating fuel. Swedish motorists were jamming the roads to the small town of Trollhattan, where price wars have cut the price of gas by 30 percent.

Meanwhile, other Germans were motoring into Poland for cheaper gas, while Poles were driving into Ukraine, where gas remains cheaper.

All across the nations, tempers are beginning to seethe. Thousands of nervous motorists jammed into service stations across Britain, drying up many fuel pumps by early yesterday afternoon.

Truck drivers in Britain have threatened a three-day blockade at refineries starting today. A similar action brought the nation to a virtual standstill five years ago.

This time, the army has been put on standby to help keep supermarkets open, if necessary. The Times newspaper of London reported that the British government is studying plans to ration gasoline for priority users such as police, firefighters and doctors.

Protesters against high fuel prices plan to demonstrate at oil refineries and gas stations — a plan that has triggered panic buying of gas nationwide.

Memories of a similar protest in 2000 have driven many motorists to their local gas pump in recent days to fill up their cars, leaving numerous stations dry and suppliers struggling to meet the surging demand.

In France, isolated protests this week have already seen farmers on bicycles and truck drivers rolling their vehicles along major highways at a snail’s pace. One bicycle procession through the town of Arras was led by two horse-drawn tractors.

Although the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina to petroleum operations in the Gulf of Mexico has helped kick up fuel prices in Europe, these costs in fact have been on a steady and occasionally steep climb for much of this year.

Far more so than in the United States, fuel is heavily taxed in nearly every country in Europe. In Britain and France, 73 percent of the price of gasoline is tax. In Germany, the percentage is 71 percent; in Italy, 68 percent; and in Spain, 63 percent.

Mr. Brown has steadfastly resisted all demands that Britain reduce fuel taxes. His answer is more oil production, not less taxation. That is why he told a conference of trade union leaders yesterday that OPEC must increase its output.

“From the additional $300 billion a year in revenue OPEC countries are now enjoying, and the additional $800 billion available to oil producers, there must be additional new investment in production and global investment in refining capacity,” Mr. Brown said.

That does little to help the plight of Adam Mleasai, a builder in Britain who paid $150 to fill up the tank of his beat-up car at a service station in London. “It’s too expensive, but there’s nothing else I can do,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I need my car for work.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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