Matters of Moment, July 1979

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Where has all the North Sea oil gone?

The prevailing petrol-famine is likely to cause many motorists to sing the above words to the tune of that even sadder cry of where have all the soldiers gone? Because, while the Government is probably wise not to introduce petrol rationing in peacetime, its assurances that there has been but a moderate cut-back in fuel-supplies and that if everyone is sensible we shall all get by are not at all helpful to long-distance drivers confronted with notices at the service stations reading “Regulars Only”, “A Poundsworth Each”, or simply “SORRY, NO PETROL”.

Not many cars will do more than 300 miles to a tankful, many considerably less, so that the situation of limited fuel, which blew up so rapidly and unexpectedly, is very troublesome to those who have to travel far from home or business base by road. That apart, there is the obvious effect that this shortage of fuel is bound to have on the sales of the bigger cars, and on outdoor pursuits in general. It would seem that Motor Sport was not being premature in predicting a small-car renaissance. One way to reduce the personal outlay on petrol, as well as going further on what you are allocated, is to replace the petrol-guzzler with an economy car. This need not be as dull as it might appear to those who have always been able to indulge their preference for multi-litred motor cars.

The high-geared Renault 5GTL must be the kind of car many will now be contemplating; the Editor has just put a Fiat 126 back on the road and is thinking of taking over a Reliant Kitten for short hauls, the one an amusing and well-engineered “modern cyclecar”, the other a practical mini-Estate. Oh, impoverished Great Britain. . . .

It is ironical that any of this should be necessary. Labour politicians told us frequently and confidently that the discovery of North Sea Oil was the best thing that had happened to this country for a century. We were told that its advent had made Britain the envy of the rest of Europe and that it would provide us with ample energy at least to the end of this century. We understand that so far 120,000,000 tons of this loudly-proclaimed bonanza have been released, with an estimated 3,000,000,000 tons in reserve, that this North Sea crude makes excellent gasolene motor spirit, and that it could keep us supplied with petrol for some 30 years ahead. Yet here we all are, made to cope with a situation in which Shell, BP and Esso have cut back deliveries to service-stations by 5% or more, at a time when consumers are using some 4% more fuel than they did last year. Diesel-fuel, essential to road haulage, is likewise in curtailed supply, even the railways having been docked of 7% of their heavy-oil requirements, apparently.

As a consequence, there is unofficial rationing at the garages, and if the 20% increase in the cost of each barrel of crude from OPEC sources has inflated the price of petrol to the car owner, there is also a black market undertone to the increases, coupled with the thought that the big oil-producers may be cutting back in order to panic consumers into paying any price they care to demand.

So where has all that North Sea Oil gone? It would appear to be very essential to the country now, even though road transport is burning but 21% of all the oil consumed annually. The sad answer seems to be that the Labour Government was trading it for a high price in overseas’ fuel-markets. Good economics possibly, but no consolation to fuel-starved drivers. Ironically, it seems that we were drawing some 1.8-million barrels a day from the seas around our coasts, 75% actually from UK oilfields, so that we could have been very nearly self-sufficient, against our overall annual consumption of approximately 2.0-million barrels a day . . . It appears that if we can use this fuel ourselves instead of selling it to the highest bidder, we might actually be independent of Iranian crude by the 1980s. Especially if alternative motor fuels can be developed, such as alcohol which, as Motor Sport pointed out recently, has been used in races like the Mille Miglia, and was used last month by a car at a Club race meeting.

Meanwhile, you might have thought Government would have sought to reduce the cost of road transport by reducing the duty on petrol and perhaps offering some concession off the £50 per annum Excise Duty it has decided to retain as an incentive for running the smaller cars. Instead, the Chancellor, in his June Budget, followed tradition by continuing to over-burden car owners, increasing petrol-duty by 7p a gallon, so that the price of 4-star, fairly charged, is up to a savage £1,08 per gallon. In addition, by increasing VAT to 15%, he has raised the prices of new cars, assuming anyone is prepared to buy something usable only if the pump-attendant approves of you.

In the face of all this, BP Oil Ltd. have rubbed salt in our wounds by issuing a little brochure containing fuel-conserving advice that, among other ploys, tells us not to carry surplus tools in the car as they add weight, to rake dirt from under the wings for the same reason, to always use a garage because cold engines consume more fuel, to fair-in any suitcases carried on the luggage-rack with hardboard (streamlining!) and — wait for it — never to fill the petrol tank as this — ha, ha — also increases weight and so consumes more fuel . . BP also say for St. Christopher’s sake don’t ever drive with the sunroof or the side-windows open, as this creates petrol-guzzling wind-drag. If things really are as bad as this we wonder they bother to go on refining the stuff. We can only hope they are joking. Like someone who suggested recently that we might be rationed to using cars on alternate days, and on Sundays on payment of an extra licence-fee, an idea Motor Sport made in jest many years ago, at the time of another fuel crisis.

Seat Belts

One good thing the Conservatives have done for motorists is to throw out the Bill to make seat belts compulsory. Having written that, and before all the cranks, do-gooders, and self-appointed keepers of other people’s affairs begin expressing their opinions, can we please make it quite clear that Motor Sport is not trying to dissuade those who want to belt-up from doing so? Indeed, we suggest that it would be a nice gesture to the new Transport Minister if you would now belt-up voluntarily, if you didn’t do so before. W.B. says he would willingly make this gesture were it not for an annoying claustrophobic tendency which prevents him. A long time ago, he says, an ingenious accessory manufacturer sent him a sharp knife for cutting through a seat belt, If trapped after an accident. This he has kept in a drawer of his office desk ever since, against the day of compulsion. Now, thanks to Norman Fowler’s sensible decision, it can be discarded. But, he says, don’t let this stop you from using your safety belt. . .