Rolling blackouts are here…where is the Newsnight debate?

A message to Mr Cameron,

When temperatures hit 20 degrees this weekend and maybe just maybe spring finally arrives, it will be cold comfort for thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of heating OIL users that have simply been forgotten. Never before has it been so obvious that heating OIL users are considered to be an unimportant annoyance to Government, but don’t worry because your failing is not unique – successive Governments have failed to know what to do about a thing called Heating OIL.

Terminals supplying the South West ran out of heating OIL yesterday – Wednesday 10th April, 2013. Yes it is 2013, we have complex energy security plans – don’t we? So can you believe that this could be possible? Well yes actually, because it happened across the East of the country last week! There is a shortage of heating OIL on mainland UK, there has been for months and I have now been telling you for as many months. But NOTHING has been done.

This has been an extraordinarily tough winter for heating OIL users and for many suppliers. They deserve better. Heating OIL in the UK runs to a “just in time” system and when things go wrong they go very wrong. Energy security?

Can you imagine the reaction if we were to have rolling blackouts for gas or electricity? At the very best you and your Government would be annihilated from all sides – the media would be in heaven. At the worst there may even be public disorder. Actually, at the absolute worst even more winter deaths may occur. But that won’t happen because we have spent billions ensuring it can’t happen.

So how come it can happen with the most commonly used additional fuel source – especially in rural areas by 1.7 million homes and often by isolated and vulnerable people – and not one person in a position of authority makes a statement, not one headline is written about it, in fact not one tiny blip appears to be registered on the radar for looking after the most vulnerable in our society. How is that possible? How can this be so incredibly unimportant?

I have met with you, Ed Davey and John Hayes. You know all this. I warned you all in December that the UK did not have enough heating OIL on the island. I warned you that the UK had no plan B if we had a bad winter! I spent time in DECC talking about contingency, clear coherent ideas on easing supply issues, intelligent plans of bringing heating OIL users together, truly representing them for the first time ever, and putting in place a key role – a Rural Energy Tsar – to whom we could go to at times exactly like this when we need a single coherent voice to inform and plan a solution. I urged you not to give us another committee, when things go wrong we need someone that can take action.

So what have we got as a result of zero action? This prolonged winter has created a greater demand than many suppliers can remember in years. It has been exacerbated by the simple fact that heating OIL users are struggling with their bills in an unprecedented fashion. Finding large upfront sums of £350 upwards is far from easy, you grasp that right? This has lead to many that could normally afford to buy larger amounts now buying less, more often. Having done so after the New Year, expecting to be able to eke that OIL out until the summer months when buying should be easier, many have had to come back to the market for a further delivery.

Just like their Government these OIL users have no plan B, because there isn’t one. Suppliers are reporting record numbers of run outs too. One suggested they’d been getting ten a day for the last three weeks. When run outs occur suppliers schedules are shot to pieces and often they perform heroics getting to them very quickly. But you must know that this is not about flicking switches and sending energy down a pipe, a cable or a line. There are a finite number of drivers, trucks, hours and days, with a finite number of litres on those trucks. When these have been pushed to maximum then they are at maximum! Which leads me to say that our experience of what suppliers are doing right across the UK to get these massive demands fulfilled has often been nothing short of extraordinary. This is a time when they would normally be letting drivers have holidays and when trucks could be serviced and off the road for a day or two. Every single one of these additional factors has made their task even more unenviable.

Run outs mean one thing: people sit and wait for their OIL. Often their only way to heat the space in their homes. Think about this too. We have had constant freezing nights. Were this over Christmas many would be looked out for by neighbours and family, but during April? Why would safety nets be in place when it should be spring? Imagine the additional strain this will have heaped on our health service and every agency that works with the fuel poor, or those specialising in outreach to the vulnerable and elderly. What if winter deaths are higher and occurred much later this year because the island ran out of heating OIL? How will we feel then about having no plans for this eventuality

These are extraordinary times. We have been urging our members to heed that and only order right now if they absolutely need it, as a result those that can wait a month are waiting. This resulted in some of our planned orders being reduced by 50%. We have also been urging everyone to dip their tanks, the old fashioned way, and ensure they do not allow themselves to run dry. But many have been caught out and we have poured more cans of emergency OIL into tanks than at any time in the last four years. We are reacting to this situation at speed with calm solutions and clear instructions, what are you doing?
I have a critical question: did you even know that terminals across the UK had been running low, let alone actually getting to the point of running dry since and over Easter?
Actually I have two: what are you going to do about it now? We might be heading for a heatwave, but some suppliers are on a delivery window almost to the end of the month – this situation will not unravel quickly – many rural residents are at risk and will remain so even when spring makes an appearance next week. When the sun shines the plight of the heating OIL user will become even further from the Government’s focus.

Some months ago somebody first spoke those words “backwardated market” and set in motion what has turned out to be a calamitous situation, a multi-million pound industry running out of the product it needs to deliver just when more people than ever before have bought it. If you think that is the way to run an industry at a time when the subject of energy has never been more important – including critical issues such as energy security, energy efficiency, fuel poverty, OIL fuel poverty, carbon emission reduction, I could go on and on – then continue to do nothing. I for one disagree and venture to ask which of us the majority of 1.7 million households would side with? But don’t worry, remember nobody is interested in heating OIL, so this won’t make the papers and it will certainly never get on Jeremy Paxman’s agenda.