Short bookings and a dose of panic. Like a 'dry' gasoline strike in a country in 24 hours – Observer



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Consumer panic. Few fuel reserves. And a system in the hands of 800 truck drivers. This is the recipe for a paralyzed country in just over 24 hours. But it does not happen only in Portugal.

A decade later the scenario repeats itself. Pumps to be dried, airports of Lisbon and Faro without fuel supply and risks for the operation of the airplanes. In 2008 was the increase in the price of fuel, the hitchhike of the escalation of oil, which drove the transporters to the street. A few trucks were enough to block the country's largest logistics park. Now it is the truck drivers of dangerous goods that in less than 48 hours threaten to paralyze road transport in Portugal which is an absolutely vital sector for the economy and mobility of millions of Portuguese. The effect comes to the distribution of propane and butane.

This is not the first time that the country has witnessed a fuel rush caused by heavy-duty truck stops. The same had already happened almost eleven years ago, in June 2008, when Portuguese truck drivers of goods went on strike against the escalation of fuel prices. At the time, heavy-duty drivers – not just those involved in the distribution of hazardous materials – stopped.

Now what has changed is the speed with which gasoline has dried on the pumps. Because? First, because truck drivers on strike are the only ones with the capacity to distribute fuels. Then, because instant notifications on mobile phones accelerated the consumer race to service areas at a pace that did not happen in 2008. And, lastly, storage infrastructures continue to have the same limited capacity as ever. The good news? Portugal is not unique.

A truck driver attests the deposits of a filling station in 2011. Credits: ANTONIO COTRIM / LUSA

The panic settled at lunchtime when Prio predicted in a statement that by the end of Tuesday, almost half of the stations would no longer have diesel or gasoline. And that the same could happen in the other brands in the following days. This news was sent in instant notification by the vast majority of media. And part of the problem started there.

News to the minute, online newspapers in constant updating and social networks. These three factors may have created a perfect storm that resulted in alarmism. This is what explains Joaquim Fidalgo, journalist and professor of ethics at the Department of Communication Sciences of the University of Minho. "The media say gasoline can run out and people are going to run because they think it can end and gasoline ends – what ended up first was diesel, the most consumed fuel in Portugal. It would not happen if they continued in their normal lives, "he says in conversation with the Observer. The proximity to Easter, a time of the year marked by mini-holidays and many motoring, accelerated the run to the pumps.

More than a decade after the 2008 protests, fewer strikers – 600, just 1.6 percent of all heavy duty drivers in the country according to the National Union of Dangerous Goods Drivers – have created a level of chaos at fuel stations similar to all the truck drivers together provoked at the time. Part of the reason is that, in recent years, social networks have evolved and the means of disseminating information on the part of the media, in particular through notifications push and the news to the minute, too.

"It's a fuse that we can lose control of. Because people, at a certain point, begin to act independently of the news. They begin to transmit the information between them. It is the information that creates the genes of disinformation and that unintentionally provokes a situation of alarmism that would not exist otherwise, "explained the professor.

The solution is a difficult balance to conquer, admits Joaquim Fidalgo. In this particular case, "it can be said that the media, in reporting it in this way, contribute to creating a certain alarmism": "They drive people all the way to the gas pumps. And for that reason it ends in an instant the reserve of gasoline that in a normal situation would give to a week or two ", begins to explain the journalist. But, on the other hand, to stop talking about it would not be acceptable because "we feel obligated to give the news because, in fact, there is a problem."

"They drive people all the way to the gas pumps. And for that reason it ends in an instant the reserve of gasoline that in a normal situation would give for a week or two "

So what is to be done? "Ideally we should give the news in a non-alarmist way and insist that it is not necessary to run the bombs because there were reservations that would last for a long time. This part is usually for small print, "advises Joaquim Fidalgo. For if it is not so, "the media will somehow worsen a situation they really want to improve."

Hardly admits the secretary general of APETRO (Portuguese Association of Oil Companies). António Comprido recalls the consequences of comparable protests in France and other countries. "When road transport fails is the entire value chain of the economy that is affected." There could have been greater coordination in the response of the authorities and a more muscular action by the police authorities when there was a breach of the minimum services and if the same non-compliance with the civil requisition is being verified.

In these situations, it is up to the union to indicate the drivers who would go on a scale, to fulfill the minimum services that the SMM president has already described as oversized. If the union does not indicate them, it will be for the companies to do so and if the workers fail they are in default and they have unjustified shortage.

Moreover, any scenario of anticipated storage capacity is removed by the reality of the fuel sector itself. Gasoline pumps have limits on the size of their deposits, defined by safety concerns, but also by the size of the stations.

The licensing of these facilities also imposes minimum intervals between the deposits and the amount they may have. In addition, it is not economically viable to invest in surplus capacity only to respond to a crisis every ten years. And strengthening this capacity can not be ensured in a short time because the licensing process is complex.

According to António Comprido, a large refueling station with a high turnover may have to be replenished daily. And far away are the days when the oil companies had their own fleet of trucking, also abandoned in the name of economic rationality.

It is true that Portugal has strategic reserves of fuels to guarantee security of supply. They give 90 days of consumption, although they have not always been in national territory. But also to use them would require a fleet of tankers and drivers qualified for the transport of dangerous materials. And these are on strike.

Like fuel pumps and storage facilities for transport companies, Lisbon and Faro airport also have limited storage capacity – Minister Siza Vieira said 48 hours. But here the operational crisis that exists at both airports could be avoided, with a pipeline link that has already existed but that was shut down because of Expo 98.

The lack of a pipeline supply is a known "weakness" of Lisbon airport, admits António Comprido of APETRO and in the last two decades has discussed the hypothesis of building a pipeline linking the largest fuel park in Aveiras to Portela , to an extent of about 50 kilometers. The investment that came to be studied in the 90s would cost something like 50 million euros, but never appeared interest of private investors in realizing it.

António Comprido explains that the uncertainty over the useful life of the Lisbon airport, and its move to Ota or the Alcochete firing range, also weighed on doubts about the return on investment that would require several years of operation to be recovered,

The feasibility of this solution was discussed again after 2008, when the airport was without access to fuels because of the blockade of the truck drivers. However, at the time it was more or less defined that the Portela would have the days counted and nothing advanced. The mid-term end of Humberto Delgado has now been dismissed by the Government's hiring solution for the expansion of Lisbon's airport capacity.

Nevertheless, and from the information gathered by the Observer, the project presented by the owner of ANA, the concessionaire of the airports, does not contemplate the construction of a pipeline for supply from the Aveiras Park.

Project presented to the Government by the owner of ANA, the concessionaire of the airports, does not contemplate the construction of a pipeline for supply from the Aveiras Park.

More recently, in 2014, the National Entity of the Fuel Market (ENMC) advanced with another idea that, according to the president, Paulo Carmona, would allow to supply the airport of Lisbon from the south bank through pipeline. Paulo Carmona explained to the Observer that the proposal was to take advantage of the deactivated pipeline that was associated with the NATO pole in Trafaria. This pipeline could reach Montijo, for which the use of the military base to expand Portela was already being studied.

According to Paulo Carmona, ENMC, which is the public entity responsible for security of energy supply, studied the extension of this pipeline link to the north bank of the Tagus river to reach Portela. The idea, he added, was to pass the tunnel through the bed of the Tagus estuary that would enter Lisbon by Cabo Ruivo and then follow an underground connection, like other cables, along Avenida Gomes da Costa until reaching Portela.

The former president of the ENMC says that the cost would be in the order of 10 million euros, a figure much lower than what was pointed to the pipeline from Aveiras. Paulo Carmona assures that the matter was being worked out when he left the strategic reserves company at the end of 2016 and that was discussed with the then Secretary of State for Energy, Jorge Seguro Sanches. And it reveals that there was even a dispatch signed by Marcos Perestrello, former Secretary of State for Defense, who assigned the concession of the NATO equipment on the southern shore to the ENMC (now called ENSE).

In addition to security of supply, the project would also allow the withdrawal of up to 180 trucks per day, which ensure the supply to the airport with advantages also at the environmental level, since the pipeline for jetfuel would work by electric pumping.

The Secretary-General of APETRO, António Comprido, does not recall having been called to discuss this issue, nor has he been presented with any economic study or basis, but admits that the matter may have been discussed with the oil companies themselves. could not confirm for now. The former Secretary of State for Energy was not available to make statements on the subject.

According to the information gathered by the Observer, a ground-breaking project was never presented to advance an international public tender. The initial objective was to take advantage of the infrastructure, which would have to be rehabilitated, to supply the future complementary airport of Montijo.

But the idea of ​​stretching the pipeline to the north bank of the Tagus has not gone beyond that, according to some sources contacted, for whom the value of the investment was undervalued and was not supported by technical or economic reasons. There has never been a formal proposal for discussion or decision. On the other hand, the disqualification of NATO premises was only authorized by the Court of Auditors in 2017.

It is almost certain that, after this crisis, the discussion on the pipeline will return to the agenda.

Another aspect helps explain the impact of this strike. In Portugal there are about 50 thousand drivers with heavy duty letters, qualified to drive trucks with goods. However, the transport of hazardous materials, such as fuels (whether for land vehicles or for airplanes), can only be carried out by a small number of these workers. Specifically, only about 800 truck drivers can carry dangerous goods (a category that also includes explosives, chemicals, radioactive material, oxygen or cryogenic material).

Worse. More than 75% of these drivers (or about 600) are grouped together at the National Union of Dangerous Goods Drivers (SNMMP), which called for the strike that started Monday. To the Observer, the president of the union, Francisco São Bento, said that all his associates joined the protest.

The unpredictability of dangerous drivers' protest comes from a concrete factor: SNMMP (created in 2018) is an independent trade union, purposely set up on the fringes of FECTRANS (Federation of Transport and Communications Unions), which is affection for the CGTP trade union center .

The drivers' union disputes precisely a collective labor contract signed by FECTRANS in September 2018 with the employers, ANTRAM. One of the first criticisms of the Union of Dangerous Goods Drivers was that it was not heard in the negotiations for the new collective bargaining agreement.

"We did not have any intervention," said Francisco Sento, who attributed this to the fact that he was the president of "a union that always wanted to be independent." It is strange the timing of the signing of the agreement. "Over 20 years the agreement has never been reviewed. In 2017 we formed the National Association of Drivers of Dangerous Goods, where we started talking about forming a union to claim our positions ", namely to distinguish – in a new professional category – these drivers of normal goods truck drivers, he recalled. This position accelerated the FECTRANS discussions surrounding the signing of the agreement, he said.

The point of the matter is that the new Truckers' Union is in a combat mode, not only with ANTRAM's bosses but also with the historical union structures in transport, often accused of responding to party logic. That is, the SNMMP is like the nurses, in freewheel. And that makes them much more dangerous.

"We will take measures to make it no longer: some infrastructures do not understand that they are so dependent on the fuel supply by road". This sentence was pronounced by the prime minister, but not this Tuesday. It was more than ten years ago in June 2008, and José Sócrates responded to criticism from the opposition (at the time PSD, CDS-PP, Bloque de Esquerda and PCP) about the lack of capacity of the socialist government to foresee the problems posed by a strike of the truckers.

If in 2008, Socrates was criticized for failing to foresee the impact of the truck drivers' protest – including by the then television commentator Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, under the heading "The Choices of Marcelo" – this Tuesday went to the Deputy Minister of Economy, Siza Vieira, give a face by the government. As in 2008, the parties on the right pointed to the "lack of preparation" of the Government of António Costa to deal with the situation. "It is proven, once again, that the Government fails in times of chaos," summarized CDS-PP leader Assunção Cristas.

This time the government was quick to enact a civil requisition, something that could only have been done with "a strike installed and in execution" and in which "minimum services were not ensured by trade unions and the workers have failed to do so. " The indictment is a judgment of the Supreme Administrative Court and the government followed suit. He decreed the civil claim this Tuesday, early in the morning, complementing it with a declaration of energy crisis, which in practice enables any driver of heavy goods to carry dangerous goods that previously could only be handled by the strikers.

However, the executive's ability to maneuver to intervene in this crisis is less than in 2008. In this blockade the demands of the transporters were directed directly to the political power. They asked for professional gas oil at a discount from the normal price, and they got a heavy discount on the tolls that was negotiated by the Government with the motorway concessionaires. Now we are facing a labor dispute that opposes private transport companies and drivers of heavy goods.

Having the country paralyzed in a short time is not an exclusively Portuguese vulnerability. Whenever there were trucker strikes, the countries were paralyzed. This is what happened, for example, three years ago in France or a year ago in Brazil. There was still no movement of the yellow vests, not even Macron, but France also stopped shortly in May 2016. The circumstances were a little different: François Hollande's government faced nationwide general strikes against labor law reform . But the effect was the same: paralyzing the fuel distribution, demonstrators paralyzed the country.

"It comes in the story, it comes in the books. One of the points to attack in any strike is the refinery, which affects the entire economy of the country. Without fuels, the movement of people and goods is at stake, attacking this system the economy is paralyzed, the country is paralyzed. Trucks are easy to lock because the supply points are few. It is enough to block these points and the country is paralyzed, "Gustavo Paulo Duarte, one of the men in the center of the hurricane, told the Observer.

One of the points to attack in any strike is the refinery, which affects the entire economy of the country. Without fuels, the circulation of people and goods is at stake, attacking this system, the economy is paralyzed, the country is paralyzed.

Trade unions (in particular the General Confederation of Labor) wanted to reach the heart of the economy and, on May 24, announced that they would block the refineries. The objective was to make it difficult to supply fuel stations and increase the impact of the general strike on citizens and even national production. François Hollande announced at once that he was going to give orders to break through these blocks and that he did not back down.

One day after the blockade, more than a third of gasoline pumps across the country were closed, not only caused by the shortage of product, but because the French began to buy five times more gasoline and diesel than usual. The authorities had to resort to strategic reserves, but even so, this did not prevent chaos in the days ahead. Small and medium-sized enterprises were affected and there was a detrimental impact on the petrochemical industry.

The director general of the Union of Chemical Industries, Jean Pelin, told Le Monde that "between 20 and 30 factories, about 10% of French production, stopped mainly in Normandy and Lyon due to lack of raw materials. This represents a loss of production of 10 to 15 million euros per day. " There was news in the following days that most of the fuel stations were closed. Hollande saw this protest disappear any chance of being re-elected to the Elysée. It was only on June 3, more than a week after the strike began, that the situation was normalized.

In Brazil, the then president Michel Temer also faced a truckers' strike, which the Brazilian media also called the "Diesel Crisis". What motivated the protest were successive rises in the price of fuels, in particular diesel, which state oil company Petrobras sometimes made at a daily pace. The protest began on May 21, 2018, at a time when fuel prices had been rising since 2017. Demonstrators paralyzed and blocked roads, leading to food shortages, drugs and fuel. There were long supply lines, public transport was reduced, there were canceled flights and there were places without classes.

In some states the state of public calamity came to be decreed. The strike would only end on May 30, with the intervention of the army. Just by force the lock was locked. There were still attempts to revive the movement, especially by one of the truckers' leaders, Wallace Landim, known as "Chorão", but there was no adhesion.

It is customary, whenever there is a trucker strike in a country, that there are supply problems. In January 2012, trucker protests in Italy against rising diesel prices have led to supply problems across the country. Thousands of TIR trucks have blocked roads and highways that have caused serious disturbances in the supply of fresh produce and fuel. In the south of the country, several gasoline pumps ran out of fuel, which also happened in the capital, Rome. Factories of the construction company FIAT have closed doors due to lack of parts.

Also in 2012, in March, there was chaos in the UK. It began with appeals from Prime Minister David Cameron and especially from Minister Francis Maude, who advised the British to fill the warehouses as a two-week strike was expected that could affect 90 percent of fuel distribution. The media were also blamed for the created alarmism. There was no strike, but before that there was a fuel rush that led to real chaos with several fuel ranks in various parts of the UK.

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