Oil Fuel supply resilience in the UK

Oil based fuels[1] serve three main and highly important purposes in the UK along with numerous other uses such as lubrication and feedstock to chemical and plastics industries[2].

  1. Heating Oil[3]: a form of Kerosene (known in the UK as Paraffin)[4], a lighter oil than Gas Oil / Diesel[5] fuel and widely used for domestic heating for homes without access to mains gas supplies.
  2. Gas Oil / Diesel: used in some older forms of heating but the main use of Diesel is for transport - cars, lorries and trains, playing a crucial part in the movement of goods and people. Diesel is also a crucial input to farming[*1]
  3. A lighter form of oil, gasoline/petrol is predominantly used by lighter, mostly personal transport such cars, small vans, motorcycles and the like.

Aviation fuel[7] is a form of kerosene. Oil, particularly when consumed for transport (essentially burning it) produces atmospheric pollutants[8] and is a substantial source of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere[9], some of which figure strongly in global warming calculations.

Oil shortages[10] have a profound effect on the world economy. The importance of road transport in the UK was analysed in an often-quoted report by Professor Alan McKinnon of Heriot-Watt University, "Life Without Lorries"[11] which warns:

"For the economy as a whole the loss of road transport for a week would be devastating."

Oil is extracted from underground deposits laid down geological ages ago. The oil extracted is known as crude oil and is a highly variable substance containing a mix of complex hydrocarbon chemicals and a number of undesirable pollutants[12]. Crude oil is processed in chemical plants known as refineries to produce the range of oil products needed by consumers. There is no one type of crude oil, it varies from heavy to light in consistency and an important criterion is its sulphur content (sweet crude has little, sour crude has more). As noted in the Deloitte Analysis[13], not all refineries are designed to cope with all kinds of crude feedstocks nor can they necessarily produce every kind of product. Oil refineries are large and very expensive chemical plants designed for high-volume production of a particular product mix from a particular kind of crude. Re-purposing refineries for different feedstocks or product mixes is not always economically viable.

The oil production and distribution system is conventionally split into two (sometimes three) components

  1. Upstream, the oil extraction and transport to refineries[14]
  2. Downstream, refining and then distribution to consumers[15]

UK Oil demand and production

Much of the information in this and subsequent sections is provided by the extensive report into UK oil resilience prepared by Deloitte in 2010 for the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)[13]. Where sources are not specifically mentioned it can be assumed that statements of fact made here are derived from that document. Some citations here refer to specific section numbers in that document for ease of reference.

Large reserves of oil and gas in the neighbouring seas supply much of the UK's oil and gas needs[16] although production from the North Sea is slowing towards the end of the second decade of the 2000s and the UK is now importing crude oil and certain refined products. Refineries in the UK produce much of what is needed for domestic use with significant over-production of gasoline, a slight under-supply of diesel and heating oil and a significant underproduction of aviation fuel. The number of refineries operating in the UK fell from 19 in 1975 to 8 in 2010, with further closures expected due to rationalisation in the industry and the opening of more efficient mega-refineries outside of the UK[13:1.1]. Indeed, the Coryton refinery closed in 2012 due to the bankruptcy of its operator[17].

In 2010, UK oilfields provided 32% of crude oil supplies, Norwegian oilfields 40%, Africa 12%, Russia 9% and the 7% balance coming from other sources. Readers may be interested to note that UK domestic consumption is not largely dependent on oil from the Middle East. DECC predictions on declining production in waters around the UK lead to a presumption of an increase in imports of crude oil from North and West Africa and the Caspian region or an increase in the import of refined oil, depending on the remaining level of refinery capability in the UK. This in turn means more dependence on oil landed ashore from ships rather than by pipeline, as at present from the North Sea fields (including Norway). A map of oil and gas pipelines together with ports of entry is available in the Deloitte report[13:p43]

Distribution of oil products in the UK is done through a mixture of pipelines, distribution centres and road transport. The pipelines and road transport have little spare capacity and so are potentially subject to short term shortages in the face of any disruption, exacerbated by demand spikes if drivers perceive a risk to supplies and decide to fill their tanks as a precaution.

Potential Emergencies

Much of the Deloitte report looks at long-term shifts in production and refining capability and how markets would respond to those, raising questions about strategic industrial policy and the desirability of retaining refining capacity even if the individual owners and operators are disinclined to keep them going for narrow commercial reasons; also the implications of becoming dependent on lengthened supply chains and parts of the world which may be unstable or subject to political pressures. These are topics which are fascinating but fall well outside our concerns: emergency situations that pose significant threat to essentials for survival.

A range of plausible emergency scenarios are discussed in the Deloitte report[13:4.2] though the report accepts that it does not attempt to address very large scale events which border on the catastrophic such as a blockade of the Straits of Hormuz. Such an event, it is noted "would create intense pressure for a political response" which may well be coded language for a military intervention. For the near to medium term it is not obvious that such events form an immediate risk to supplies in the UK given the sources of crude oil and the national refinery capacity, though of course knock-on effects would be likely to have second-order implications.

Most of the emergency scenarios are, at worst, liable to lead to short-term inconvenience rather than severe shortages that would pose serious levels of threat. The industry is dispersed and the amount of trading that would be available to replace supplies makes it hard to see that unmanageable situations would arise, at least in normal peacetime conditions. A range of mitigation strategies are in place and have at times been at least partly tested. The International Energy Agency (of which the UK is a participating member) requires countries to hold 90 days of emergency stocks and coordinates release of stocks to help manage emergency situations[18].

In the case of fuel shortages, UK Government has emergency legislation in place to permit a national response with sharing of information on availability of stocks and coordinating supplies via the 'Downstream Oil Protocol'[19] as well as the National Emergency Plan for fuel allocation[20].

Further government thinking on fuel resilience can be found in a response to a fuel resilience consultation published in 2018 for BEIS (DECC having been renamed/reorganised)[21] which does not propose any radical changes to the status quo, though it proposes the establishment of a reserve tanker fleet to assist in physical distribution of oil supplies.

Concluding Remarks

The importance of fuel supplies is such that UK Government has established plans to deal with plausible emergencies, furthermore, the UK is not at present seriously exposed to supply risk in most normal circumstances. Events that could change this situation would need to be of such a scale and so disruptive that the nature of the emergency is on a regional scale and not specific to oil. Oil would become a casualty and a contributory rather than a causal factor.

Should a severe and sudden situation arise which would cause the emergency planning to be put in place it seems reasonable to assume that there would be moderate to severe short-term disruption to normal life but that this would be due to planning and implementation deficiencies rather than lack of fundamental resources. As is mentioned in comments in the Cranfield Food Resilience report[22:4.2.2], the Priority User concept for fuel is a source of scepticism as to its fitness for purpose (this will be discussed elsewhere on this site).

Well-prepared people will wish to have mitigation strategies in place for short to medium term disruption to fuel and, consequentially, food and potentially other supplies.


  1. Explanation of various types of oil from howstuffworks.com
  2. EIA breakdown of oil usage in USA
  3. 'Which' guide to heating oil
  4. Wikipedia entry for Kerosene
  5. Explanation of main fuel oil types by Crown Oil
  6. DEFRA detailed food security assessment, 2009/10
  7. Wikipedia entry for Jet Fuel
  8. Ecology.com article on environmental impact of oil
  9. EIA article on CO2 produced by burning various fuels
  10. Britannica entry on oil crisis
  11. Life Without Lorries, report by Alan McKinnon, 2004
  12. Wikipedia entry for Petroleum
  13. Analysis of UK fuel resilience performed by Deloitte for UK Government, 2015
  14. Wikipedia entry for upstream oil production
  15. Wikipedia entry for downstream oil production
  16. Wikipedia entry for UK oil and gas production
  17. Wikipedia entry for the Coryton Oil Refinery
  18. International Energy Agency Oil Security Measures
  19. UK legislation on fuel supplies, the 'downstream protocol'
  20. Uk Government Emergency Plan for Fuel Allocation
  21. Uk Government response to consultation on fuel resilience, April 2018
  22. Cranfield report into UK food resilience, 2006


  1. As the DEFRA detailed food security report[6] notes: