LONDON (CN) — Environmental protesters have begun blockades of 10 major oil refineries across England, causing substantial disruption to the industry’s operations.
Campaign group Just Stop Oil began the demonstrations early on Friday morning. Their stated intention is to immobilize the U.K.’s fossil fuel infrastructure, signaling an escalation in tactics from activists associated with the protest group Extinction Rebellion.
Four fuel terminals have been forced to suspend all operations after protesters blocked access roads, climbed on top of fuel tankers, and obstructed other strategic locations.
Their campaign begins on a day when concerns about energy are at the forefront of conversations across Britain. Overnight, gas and electricity prices more than doubled for U.K. consumers, with the average British household now receiving energy bills 54% higher than the previous month. Alongside increases in national insurance – a tax on wages – and the highest rates of inflation for more than 30 years, a burgeoning cost of living crisis is quickly consuming British politics.
The Resolution Foundation estimate the energy price changes will immediately plunge an additional 2.5 million people into “fuel stress” – when consumers spend more than 10% of their income on energy costs alone – bringing the total number of people most severely affected to 5 million people, or 8% of the population. The same research has warned that further increases expected in autumn could lead to widespread poverty emerging in certain parts of the country, estimating that more than 40% of households in North East England would struggle to pay their bills.
The overnight increase has been triggered by the regulator Ofgem lifting the price cap on energy bills for the new financial year, which begins on April 1., On Thursday, the websites of all major energy providers in Britain crashed as consumers rushed to register meter readings before the price hikes kicked in.
Last week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the U.K.’s finance minister, announced a range of measures designed to offset the impact of the price rises, including cuts on fuel duties, government loans, and a rising minimum wage.
However, the chancellor’s response to the crisis has been criticized as indifferent and out of touch, with the measures announced accused of having a negligible effect on household budgets.
The Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, chastised Sunak, saying: “The chancellor could have put a windfall tax on oil and gas producers to provide real support to households, but he didn’t … he could have properly scrapped his national insurance hike, but he didn’t. How many more children and pensioners will drift into poverty because of the choices of this government?”
The opposition party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, was similarly critical.
“The chancellor hasn’t got a clue. He lives in another world,” she said. “He’s left households and businesses to fend for themselves in the middle of a devastating cost of living crisis. The Office for Budget Responsibility knows this is the biggest hit to household incomes on record.”
Over the past week, Sunak’s approval ratings have plummeted, denting his widely acknowledged prime ministerial ambitions. Increased scrutiny of the chancellor’s personal finances has led to accusations that he is unable to grasp the severity of the crisis. Sunak is reported to be the U.K.’s richest member of Parliament, with his personal wealth exceeding 200 million pounds ($262 million), while his billionaire father-in-law is the sixth richest person in India.
The energy price rises have been triggered by a steep increase in global wholesale gas prices. The U.K. has become particularly reliant on gas after scaling down its North Sea oil operations during the 2000s. However, the government is now seeking to reduce reliance on gas imports as a result of the war in Ukraine. An emergency energy security review due to be published next week is expected to announce a range of new licenses for oil and gas extraction operations in the U.K.