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French workers end strike at Total units

Doris Leblond
OGJ Correspondent

PARIS, Feb. 25 -- Union workers called off a week-long strike at 6 of Total SA refineries and 7 of its 31 storage depots in France after company officials promised not to shut down or sell any more refineries for 5 years.

Total was hit by strikes supporting workers’ Feb. 16 takeover of the company’s idle 137,000-b/d Dunkirk refinery (OGJ Online, Feb. 23, 2010). Total officials said refining will not resume at that facility, but its employees will be guaranteed jobs within the group.

The end of the dispute came as workers at the two Esso SAF refineries at Gravenchon-Port Jerome and Fos-sur-Mer were preparing for a 24-hr strike. Workers at the Ineos refinery at Lavera were discussing whether to strike in support of the Total workers.

There will be a roundtable discussion of the Dunkirk refinery’s future among company, union, and perhaps government officials before the end of March. Olivier Jakob at Petromatrix, Zug, Switzerland, earlier said the French government was “accentuating the pressure for a way out” of the strike before it impacted French fuel supplies. He said there was “a high risk of a sharp correction” in gasoline markets when the strike ended.

The strike came at the start of the February school break in France and 3 weeks before regional elections important for the government party in power. Motorists were starting to panic with queues forming at service stations.

Meanwhile, Total confirmed its objective to maintain a “modern and competitive” refining operation in France. But some analysts question whether it can keep the no sale-no shutdown promises wrung from the firm by government and union officials.

There is deep concern among French refinery workers that Dunkirk may well be the harbinger of other shutdowns in France on the back of the announced “structural fall” in product consumption.

Industry Minister Christian Estrosi is to chair a roundtable on France's energy future in second quarter, one of the main demands of the trade unions.

Jean-Paul Vettier, former refining and marketing vice-president of Total, told OGJ France’s refining industry is losing €150 million/month since March 2009. He said France is caught in a dilemma between an all-out environmental policy and the need to temper its impact on the refining industry. Vetter is now president of the Swiss-based refining company Petroplus.

Jakob said, “It is very well and trendy wanting to run cars on sugar, corn, and soybeans, but politicians should also have the guts to explain that there is a social cost for wanting to reduce dependency on oil, and that is that some refineries in the Atlantic Basin need to close and that some workers in the refinery industry will necessarily lose their jobs.”

Refineries in the Atlantic Basin “are not only suffering from the increased market share of biofuels but as well from the increasing imports of refined products originating from the new refineries in Asia. The Atlantic Basin is trying to shy away from Iranian oil but in the end that crude oil is being refined at a discount in Asia, and the products sent to Atlantic Basin where they are forcing refineries into permanent shutdowns on both sides of the Atlantic,” Jakob said.

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