Europe’s crude re­al­ity: Pinch at pump crosses pond

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By El­iz­a­beth Bryant

PARIS — High gas prices have long been a fact of life in Europe, but with crude-oil prices sky­rock­et­ing, Euro­pean mo­torists are be­gin­ning to feel a pain sim­i­lar to that af­flict­ing Amer­i­can driv­ers.

Bri­tons are pay­ing nearly $10 a gal­lon for gaso­line. Add to that panic trig­gered by a 48-hour strike over the April 26-27 week­end at Scot­land’s only oil re­fin­ery, which forced the clo­sure of a pipe­line that de­liv­ers nearly one-third of the na­tion’s North Sea crude.

By 6 p.m. April 26, mo­torists lined up at gas sta­tions in and around Ed­in­burgh, Scot­land. Some sta­tions ran out of gas. Oth­ers be­gan lim­it­ing pur­chases to $40 per visit — all for a mea­ger 4 gal­lons.

When it comes to ad­just­ing life­styles to rely less on cars, Euro­peans may take some com­fort in hav­ing a head start over Amer­i­cans.

Fill­ing up his wife’s dark-blue SUV at a con­ve­nience-store pump in north­ern Paris, Di­dier Marc­hand al­most laughed when told that the price of gaso­line for Amer­i­can mo­torists is ap­proach­ing $4 a gal­lon.

“If we had that price [. . . ] we’d be de­lighted,” Mr. Marc­hand said.

The prices posted at the 8-a-Huit store re­flect French re­al­ity: more than $8 per gal­lon for reg­u­lar.

“What shocks me is not the price of gas, but the taxes the gov­ern­ment adds on to it. They’re re­ally, re­ally high,” Mr. Marc­hand said. “It’s scan­dalous.”

More than a gen­er­a­tion of high gas taxes, nearly dou­ble those in the U.S., have en­cour­aged Euro­peans to opt for pub­lic trans­porta­tion, bi­cy­cles and smaller, more fuel-ef­fi­cient cars than their U.S. coun­ter­parts, an­a­lysts say.

“Bet­ter cars, less in­ten­sive use of cars has meant over­all con­sump­tion of fuel in Europe has been go­ing down steadily over the last three years,” said Pierre Noel, an en­ergy re­searcher at Cam­bridge Univer­sity in Eng­land.

“We are much bet­ter equipped than the U.S. to deal with higher prices and a more volatile mar­ket be­cause we are so much less oil in­ten­sive than you are,” said Mr. Noel, who bikes to work.

Europe gen­er­ally has far more ex­ten­sive pub­lic trans­porta­tion net­works than the U.S., with work­ers in coun­tries such as Bri­tain, Bel­gium and France pack­ing morn­ing com­muter trains and sub­ways.

Trans­porta­tion plan­ning in­creas­ingly fac­tors in bike lanes, and more in­no­va­tive may­ors such as those in Paris and Lon­don are de­sign­ing schemes to fa­cil­i­tate al­ter­na­tive trans­port and to make driv­ing an ever more ar­du­ous op­tion.

This helps soften the bite of soar­ing oil prices for com­muters, but not for those who de­pend on their ve­hi­cles like ar­chi­tect Christo­pher As­san, who says he can­not work with­out his mo­tor­cy­cle.

“I’m re­ally feel­ing the in­crease,” said Mr. As­san, sport­ing a dark-blue turtle­neck and leather jacket as he care­fully poured gas from a plas­tic bot­tle into his tank. “I fill my bike up about three times a week. That’s about 60 euros [$94]. Two years ago, I spent about half that.”

Taxi driv­ers are also hurt­ing. “We’re hav­ing a very hard time be­cause fuel is a big ex­pense,” said Ber­trand Casagrande, vice pres­i­dent of the Cham­bre Ar­ti­sanal des Taxi, rep­re­sent­ing two-thirds of the 50,000 in­de­pen­dent taxi driv­ers in France.

But be­cause most French taxi driv­ers own their busi­ness, few are con­sid­er­ing quit­ting, he said.

Gas is even more ex­pen­sive in Bri­tain, where top prices hover at nearly 5 Bri­tish pounds, or nearly $10 a gal­lon.

In Scot­land, the lo­cal gov­ern­ment de­vel­op­ment agency re­cently warned that nearly half the re­gion’s gas sta­tions might close over the next five years, as price-con­scious com­muters drive less.

“I’m lucky. I don’t use an aw­ful lot of petrol, and it doesn’t bother me too much be­cause I can af­ford it,” said Ed­in­burgh res­i­dent Erica Don­ald, 79, us­ing the Bri­tish term for gaso­line.

“But I worry that oil prices are go­ing up so high that it af­fects busi­nesses, it af­fects trans­port. It af­fects food prices.”

In Paris, Mayor Ber­trand De­la­noe is not mak­ing life easy for driv­ers. Dur­ing his six years in City Hall, he has pushed through a vir­tual revo­lu­tion in the city’s trans­porta­tion land­scape.

New bike lanes criss­cross the city, nar­row­ing car lanes and in­creas­ing traf­fic con­ges­tion in the process.

Ma­jor ar­ter­ies hug­ging the Seine River are closed to driv­ers on Sun­days to make way for bik­ers and in­line skaters. Last year, he in­tro­duced a wildly pop­u­lar bi­cy­cle-for-hire scheme known as “Velib,” park­ing some 15,000 bikes in pickup sta­tions across the city that can be rented for about $1.60 a ride.

Sim­i­lar plans are afoot in some U.S. cities. In Wash­ing­ton, SmartBike D.C. is of­fer­ing a net­work of bikes stored at com­put­er­ized racks through­out the city for an an­nual fee of $40.

This year, Paris added a car-for- hire scheme dubbed ALS (Au­to­mo­biles-en-Li­bre-Ser­vice) to the mix, with plans to put 2,000 elec­tric cars on the streets over the next two years.

The Velib scheme has been repli­cated in a num­ber of Euro­pean cities, in­clud­ing Barcelona, Brus­sels, Oslo and Vi­enna, Aus­tria. And it is just one of a raft of “green” mea­sures be­ing tested as Euro­pean con­sumers seek to be­come less oil de­pen­dent.

For its part, the city of Lon­don plans to more than triple its “con­ges­tion tax” against car com­muters to nearly $50 a day by the end of Oc­to­ber.

Still, crit­ics such as Franziska Achter­berg, trans­porta­tion cam­paigner for Green­peace in Brus­sels, say Europe could do a lot more to wean it­self from pe­tro­leum.

“Peo­ple are driv­ing more all the time de­spite the high prices,” she said. “Peo­ple just get used to them.”

Anti-car ef­forts in Paris and Lon­don may para­dox­i­cally back­fire, some ex­perts warn, as driv­ers sim­ply go fur­ther to get around the hur­dles. A re­cent study by King’s Col­lege in Lon­don, for ex­am­ple, found car­bon-diox­ide emis­sions would ac­tu­ally rise with a con­ges­tion-tax in­crease as peo­ple drive fur­ther to avoid con­ges­tion-charge zones.

And de­spite bet­ter rail and bus links than in the United States, the car con­tin­ues to rule the road in Euro­pean sub­urbs and small towns.

Ef­forts to re­duce car de­pen­dency or de­sign green al­ter­na­tives do not fac­tor heav­ily into Euro­pean Union plans to slash car­bon-diox­ide emis­sions by 2020, Cam­bridge Univer­sity’s Mr. Noel noted.

“Cut­ting car­bon emis­sions in the trans­porta­tion sec­tors is just much more dif­fi­cult and more costly than in other sec­tors,” he said. “Be­cause emis­sions are de­cen­tral­ized. They’re hard to track.”

This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

As­so­ci­ated Press

Smile, Amer­ica, things could be worse: A man fills up gas cans at an Esso sta­tion in End­in­burgh, Scot­land. A 48-hour strike at Scot­land’s only oil re­fin­ery forced a pipe­line clo­sure and trig­gered panic at the pumps.

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