Supply Chain: How fuel moves around the UK
The UK's fuel supply chain has experienced intense pressure over the past few weeks, mainly due to the lack of trained HGV drivers compounded by a vast, media-led increase in demand. This increase in demand was ultimately what caused the mass scale running out of fuel.
Until the last few weeks, the fuel supply chain has been resilient. The analogy of a chain, if one link were to break, the whole chain fails, may not be the best way to describe fuel supply in the UK. The fuel supply chain is more like a web, with multiple terminals, pipelines, storage facilities, forecourts, and delivery drivers making up the web. This web removes, for the majority of the time, a single point of failure.
The government even has a reserve fleet of 80 tankers to aid with fuel supply should a crisis occur, and these were rolled out in the last couple of weeks.
How fuel travels around the UK
There are six oil refineries around the coastline of the UK, and these both import and export to global markets. Typically, the UK refineries will import crude oil and some finished grades such as diesel to supplement supply. From these refineries, fuel can be collected by road tankers or moved to other inland storage facilities. Two possible options to move fuel inland would be by rail or by a network of underground pipelines. There are 41 coastal and 20 inland large-scale storage facilities in the UK.
The underground network of pipelines feeds strategic locations across the UK, including airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick. This network safely and efficiently moves 30 million tonnes of fuel annually around the county without impacting the road network or requiring HGV drivers.
The last leg of the journey is nearly always completed by road. HGV drivers will collect petrol and diesel from the storage locations throughout the UK and deliver them to your local forecourt.
To improve the efficiency of the supply chain, the various forecourt brands will have supply deals with other providers, so if they don't have any storage nearby, they will 'exchange' fuel with another company that does. This reduces the miles and transportation costs to get petrol and diesel to the desired location.
The past few weeks have shone the light on the UK fuel supply chain. The fundamental cause of the problem was the lack of fully trained HGV tanker drivers. Once panic buying set in, the system's resilience came into question, and the steady return of supply to the forecourts was only achieved when backup plans came into effect. Increasing the number of drivers will ultimately solve the initial problem, but no industry can overcome large-scale panic buying on the scale seen in recent weeks.