Soaring Diesel Prices in Europe Fuel Protests

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While Europeans are used to paying a lot for unleaded gasoline, the sudden rise in the more popular and usually cheaper diesel fuel has come as a shock. In Spain this week, truckers blocked roads and stopped making deliveries to protest the soaring fuel costs. Spanish fishermen are also striking, and the French Navy has canceled three summer missions.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Our next story concerns the cost of fuel in Europe. And to give it some context we did a little research. In Slovenia, President Bush rode in a Cadillac DTS. Its gas tank normally holds 18 gallons. We called a gas station in Slovenia and found out that a liter of petrol is going for 1.29 Euros. At yesterday's exchange rate that equals $2.01 per liter or just about $7.61 a gallon. So it would have cost $137 and change to fill the tank of the car the president rode in.

While E.U. citizens might be used to paying a lot for unleaded gas, the sudden rise in the more popular and usually cheaper diesel fuel has come as a shock. In Spain this week truckers blocked roads and stopped making deliveries to protest. Spanish fishermen are also striking, and the French Navy yesterday cancelled three summer missions because of Europe's soaring fuel costs.

Eleanor Beardsley reports.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: At a Berlin gas station, Andreas Schmidt is filling up his Volkswagen minivan. Schmidt says he's been driving a lot less lately and taking his bike a bit more. But his $120 gas bill today has him contemplating more drastic solutions.

Mr. ANDREAS SCHMIDT (Berlin Resident): Also I was thinking about other possibilities of fuel. For example, people use sunflower oil, which is possible to use but a bit problematic in the winter because the car doesn't start that easy with sunflower oil. But it's half of price so it's very interesting.

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BEARDSLEY: Schmidt aside, most European car drivers seem to be coping better than Americans with the price of fuel. Gasoline has always been expensive here because of high taxes, and because those taxes account for up to 60 percent of the pump price, dramatic changes in the price of crude oil aren't felt as sharply by the consumer. Americans pay much lower taxes on gasoline - about 12 percent - so they've felt every jump in the price of oil.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: After the oil shocks of the 1970s, Europe invested heavily in rail and other public transport. Most Europeans in big cities don't even own cars and are happy to use trains for longer trips and vacations. For those who do own cars, the new cleaner diesel models have been the vehicle of choice.

Diesel cars make up more than 50 percent of new car sales in Europe, but Didier Houssin of the International Energy Agency says what's hit European consumers is the sudden rise in the price of diesel fuel.

Mr. DIDIER HOUSSIN (International Energy Agency): Diesel has been encouraged by governments in Europe, and especially in France for a very long time. But when the consumers decide to buy a diesel car they expect to pay also a lower price at the pump and it's no more the case. And now the price of diesel is higher than for gasoline - it's like $10 per gallon - and this is creating a very strong reaction among consumers.

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BEARDSLEY: Last month, French fishermen began blockading ports and demonstrating in the streets to protest the high cost of diesel fuel. The protests spread to other European countries and truckers joined them, blocking highways into major cities. Farmers blockaded oil depots or drove their tractors slowly through the streets of European cities. The protests turned violent around the European parliament in downtown Brussels last week when E.U. ministers rejected a plan to subsidize diesel fuel.

Mr. PASCAL GUILLAUME (French Fisherman): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: What do we have to lose, asked Pascal Guillaume, a fisherman who traveled from Brittany. We'll have to leave our boats in port and we're all going to die if nothing changes, so we have nothing to lose by become radical.

There is no common European strategy to help deal with the rise in oil prices yet, but the pressure on governments to do something is growing. Yesterday, French oil giant Total agreed to create a $160 million fund to help low-income households with their heating oil bills this winter. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently proposed a Europe-wide cut in the tax on diesel fuel, but his tax holiday idea was dismissed by other European leaders.

Although most ordinary motorists here seem to be more resigned than their American counterparts to the steep price of fuel, analysts say that could change if the price goes much higher. In the small towns and rural areas of Europe, where incomes are lower and there is little public transport, people are feeling the pinch.

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BEARDSLEY: In the French provincial town of Salon-de-Provence, residents like Jean Vair(ph) use their cars for everything. Vair says he stopped taking weekend trips to the nearest big city of Marseilles.

Mr. JEAN VAIR: (Through translator) Gas is too expensive, but we have no choice here. I have to make my tank last three weeks so I drive slowly, try to economize in this way.

BEARDSLEY: Vair says he thanks God his small Renault sedan gets 60 miles to the gallon because it costs him nearly $100 to fill it with diesel.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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