Fears of fuel shortages as Grangemouth strike looms

AIRPORTS and petrol stations have moved to quell fears over fuel shortages ahead of a ­two-day strike at Scotland’s only oil refinery.
Grangemouth chiefs have pleaded with workers not to go ahead with a planned strike. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA WireGrangemouth chiefs have pleaded with workers not to go ahead with a planned strike. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Grangemouth chiefs have pleaded with workers not to go ahead with a planned strike. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The owners of the Grangemouth plant have warned the walkout could “shut most of Scotland” and disrupt oil supplies from the North Sea.

Unite members will walk out for 48 hours from 7am next Sunday in protest over the treatment of union convener Stephen Deans.

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Last night the union accused the site’s owner Ineos of “gunboat diplomacy”, while the company described the strike as “bizarre” and “irresponsible”.

Ineos has launched an internal investigation into Deans, who was involved in the dispute over the selection of a ­Labour candidate in Falkirk.

Deans, who is chairman of Labour’s constituency party, was suspended by Ineos, then reinstated. He remains on full pay as a law firm checks his e-mails as part of the investigation, which is expected to be concluded by Friday, with the outcome made known by 25 October. He has already been cleared of any wrongdoing by the police and Labour.

Petrol retailers said they were confident they had stockpiles in place to mitigate the effects of the strike, while Scotland’s busiest airport, Edinburgh, said it had three days worth of fuel in reserve.

Despite the strike, the Grangemouth plant could still be put on to “hot stand-by”, a state of readiness, which would allow supplies from the North Sea to keep flowing. However, Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty said Ineos had already rejected such a plan, something which was later denied by the company.

Rafferty said: “We made the offer to go to Acas [Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service] a few weeks ago, it was rejected. We offered again last week – rejected. We offered to sit down and talk about hot stand-by – rejected. Every effort we make to end the dispute in a responsible, dignified manner is met with negativity from them.

“We make the offer for the third time – we will go to Acas. We will go there tomorrow. The ball is in Ineos’ court. They can resolve this. But we’ve always been of the view that, because of their actions and attitude, they seem determined to get to an industrial dispute on the site.”

Referring to both the current impasse and the requests Ineos have made to the Westminster and Holyrood governments for cash to secure the long-term future of the plant, Rafferty added: “It’s outrageous the way they have been speaking to people and holding people to hostage. It’s gunboat diplomacy and needs to stop because the site is far too important.

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“You can only be hopeful [of averting a strike] if the company changes its attitude, if it comes to the negotiations in a meaningful way. Unless they change their attitude, I’m not hopeful.”

Ineos has started putting its procedures in place to ensure the site can be safely shut down and said it would redouble its attempts to negotiate an end to the dispute.

Chairman Calum MacLean said: “This strike is absolutely bizarre. What they’re trying to do is blackmail us into dropping our investigation into Stephen Deans, but for us to drop it now would be to say the union has won. We told them that we would be willing to go to Acas at the appropriate time but rather than negotiate they prefer to strike.

“We will do all we can to minimise the harm this Unite strike does to the people of Scotland and the north of England. We have high fuel stocks in the refinery and a contingency plan to use the site as an import terminal to bring additional fuel in by sea if necessary.”

Ineos recently launched a survival plan for Grangemouth, warning that the site will close by 2017 without investment and reduced costs. The company said it is losing £10 million a month and warned the strike could “tip Grangemouth over the edge”.

Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, said that, due to efforts to ensure alternative supplies were being brought in, he was confident forecourts would cope with the two-day shutdown. He added that lessons had been learned from the last shutdown at Grangemouth in 2008, as well as from the mistakes made ahead of a threatened strike by fuel tanker drivers last year when Cabinet minister Francis Maude was accused of causing panic buying by advising people to store jerry cans of petrol at home.

A spokeswoman for Edinburgh Airport said: “We’ll work with our airline partners and fuel suppliers to ensure minimum disruption to our passengers.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government is disappointed that strike action is now planned by Unite. This news reinforces our view that this dispute can only be properly and fully resolved by negotiation between the company and the trade unions. We will now redouble our efforts to encourage negotiation to avert a strike, whilst taking forward contingency planning activity.”

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UK Energy Secretary Edward Davey said the UK government had been working with the fuel industry and Scottish ministers to “put robust alternative supply routes in place in case of a strike, which means that motorists can carry on as normal and other impacts will be kept to a minimum”.