The Anglo File: Just as Gas Crisis Ebbs, ExxonMobil Adds Fuel to Fire

Protestors return to block refineries after company's U.K. unit says it will raise prices.
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LONDON -- Stung by media blasts and worries over the effect of shortages on the health service, fuel protestors who almost brought Britain to its knees this week began abandoning their posts Thursday morning, allowing tanker trucks to deliver supplies to now-empty gas stations.

Then, before you could say, "Crisis? What crisis?"

ExxonMobil's

(XOM) - Get Report

U.K. subsidiary,

Esso

, announced it would be raising gas prices, jeopardizing an end to the protests.

Now, it seems, the issue is far from over and the situation is changing hour by hour.

Speaking at a press conference,

Prime Minister Tony Blair

could hardly keep the irritation out of his voice while answering a question about Esso's decision this morning to raise the price of unleaded gasoline by 2 pence (2.8 cents) a liter and diesel by 4 pence. Esso said it was boosting prices because of increases in the cost of crude oil. Blair said he would be on the phone to the oil companies immediately.

As a result of Esso's decision, some hard-line protestors immediately resumed their posts outside refineries, and vowed to continue blocking fuel deliveries until the government gives in to their demands to lower gas taxes. Britain is by far the most expensive place in Europe to buy gas -- it costs just over $1.20 a liter for gas compared with $1.10 in France and about 40 cents in the U.S. Of every pound spent on gas, 76.8% goes into the government's pocket.

Even without further protests, the U.K. has a long way to go before any semblance of normality returns.

Tanker trucks were streaming out of the refineries this morning and the

FTSE 100

celebrated with its first rise in seven days by trading up 1.4%. By midday, though, 98% of

Shell's

(SC) - Get Report

stations were still dry, as were 90% of

Total Fina Elf's

(TOT) - Get Report

and 80% of

BP's

(BP) - Get Report

.

Texaco

(TX) - Get Report

is predicting that even without further disruptions, it will take 15 days to resume normal service.

All nonurgent surgery has been canceled, many schools are closed and supermarkets are rationing essential food such as bread and milk.

Although it appears for the moment that Britain has stepped back from the Friday crunch, when the head of the

Confederation of British Industry

, or CBI, said the nation would become crippled, the London Chamber of Commerce estimates that the protests are costing the national economy about 250 million pounds a day.

A spokeswoman for

Ford

(F) - Get Report

said there had been no stoppages at any of the carmaker's 21 British plants but, "Employee absences are slightly up." She refused to speculate about what might happen if the protests continue, but said the company is watching the situation closely.

Looking beyond the current crisis, Blair sounded a more conciliatory note this afternoon by saying that the government is "ready and willing" to discuss gas-tax issues with the trucking industry, which sparked the protests, but that it would never be forced to change policy by direct action from any group. The head of the CBI, Digby Jones, voiced concern over what effect the protests will have on investment from abroad and urged the government to start working on a solution "tonight." He said that Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has an opportunity in his November minibudget to come up with a solution.

"Whether it's Detroit or Tokyo, they look at these types of things before investing. We've got to get a solution to this," Jones said on the

BBC

last night.

More worrisome for this government and, indeed, governments in the future, is the nature of the protests. Since the Boston Tea party in 1773, the U.S. has known about the power of such taxpayer revolts, but the U.K. has been largely spared them. These protests are not being led by a union (former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is credited with emasculating them), or by a political party, but by Mr. Average, according to a leading political commentator.

And as any government knows, hell hath no fury like Mr. Average scorned.