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French Police Move In to Remove Fuel-Depot Blockades

French police moved in to open fuel depots to release oil supplies blocked by strikers as walkouts at ports and refineries across the nation shut down crude imports and sparked shortages at filling stations.

Police ordered protesters to lift barricades at a depot in Fos-sur-Mer near Marseille today to let trucks deliver fuel, a spokeswoman for the Prefecture des Bouches-du-Rhone said. Two other depots were also cleared, including one near Bordeaux, while others remain blocked, the CGT union said.

A “few hundred” service stations are experiencing fuel shortages out of about 12,000 nationwide, according to Alexandre de Benoist, head of the Independent Fuel Importers Union, whose members are supermarkets with fuel outlets. “It’s enough to create worry among consumers and push some into panic-buying.”

Refinery and oil terminal workers have extended a strike over plans to raise the pension age and a dispute in Marseille over a port overhaul. A wider walkout this week disrupted transport, schools, power supplies and public services and is now largely confined to the fuel and ports sectors.

Oil import points at Le Havre, Marseille and near Nantes have all been blocked by the labor action. The three points are the only means that crude normally enters France, a spokesman for Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres, the refiner’s group, said today by phone from Paris.

Airport Shortages

All French refineries have stopped deliveries because of the strike, said Charles Foulard, a CGT leader. Fuel consumption jumped 50 percent this week as motorists rushed to fill cars, according to Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau.

A fuel pipeline to the Paris region, including to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, stopped operating due to a refinery strike at Grandpuits, Agence-France Presse reported, citing pipeline operator Trapil. Roissy has enough fuel until next week and Orly for 17 days, the report said.

“We aren’t trying to cause fuel shortages,” CGT Secretary General Bernard Thibault said today on LCI television. Police mustn’t use “excessive” force breaking barricades, he said. “This isn’t the way we will get out of this impasse.”

Unions have voted to widen the strike again on Oct. 19, the eve of a Senate vote on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bill to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Sarkozy has refused to back down, and unions have walked out three times since mid-September. The lower house has passed the bill, and the Senate has approved key measures.

The strike, which brought as many as 1.23 million people to the streets in the nation of 65 million residents on Oct. 12, is now evident mostly in the rush to gas stations to stock up on fuel, television reports showed.

Releasing Reserves

The government will release fuel reserves held by oil companies to service stations, the National Road Haulage Federation and the refiners’ group, the UFIP, said yesterday.

France isn’t drawing on strategic reserves, the International Energy Agency said in its monthly Oil Market Report. Instead it’s switching reserves in areas where fuel is needed with commercial stocks from elsewhere in the country so the total emergency stockpile remains the same.

France had oil stocks equivalent to 95 days of net imports at the end of July, according to the IEA. About 60 days of supplies are held as public stocks and the rest as strategic reserves “held by industry for emergency use,” it said.

The labor action has blocked crude tankers at the Le Havre oil terminal, where the strike entered its third day, and at Marseille, now in the 19th day, port officials said.

Tankers Stranded

Tankers also can’t unload at the Donges refinery near Nantes or to a nearby pipeline, according to a spokesman for Compagnie Industriel Maritime, which operates the Le Havre oil terminal.

Le Havre supplies crude to Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Gravenchon refinery, Petroplus Holding AG’s Petit Couronne plant as well as Total SA’s Grandpuits and Normandy sites, he said.

Total, Europe’s biggest refiner, has started to shut down units at Donges, Feyzin, Grandpuits, Normandy and La Mede as a result of the strike. Its plant near Dunkirk was halted last year and is slated for closure.

LyondellBasell Industries NV said yesterday it started to shut down its Berre refinery in southern France because of a lack of crude supplies. Petroplus Holdings AG is halting its Petit Couronne plant. The CGT union said Petroplus’ Reichsett plant is also being stopped.

Exxon Mobil Corp. won’t stop its refinery at Fos at the end of the week, according to Catherine Brun, a company spokeswoman. Deliveries are blocked by a strike there and production is disrupted by labor action at Gravenchon, she said.

Ineos Group Holdings Plc is operating its Lavera refinery at reduced rates, Richard Longden, a U.K.-based spokesman, said today by phone. “We’re still monitoring the situation.”

The strike at Marseille’s Fos and Lavera oil terminals left 62 vessels stranded as of today. These included 46 crude and refined fuel tankers and 10 gas transporters, according to a statement from the port.

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