‘It’s a media war’: the UK’s top anti-oil campaigner fights on aged 80 | Fossil fuels

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George Whatley outside the Oikos oil plant in Canvey.

George Whatley is probably Britain’s most successful anti-oil campaigner, but you won’t find him at Extinction Rebellion’s latest wave of protests or the Just Stop Oil campaign which has blocked fossil fuel infrastructure recently.

At 80 years old and after a recent spell in hospital, he will be taking it easy at his bungalow on Canvey Island, Essex. But if anyone can claim a place in the annals of successful environmental protests, it is this former Bank of England security guard.

In the space of 50 years, Whatley has on five occasions taken on oil and gas companies trying to expand refineries and import terminals and sent them packing.

“What have I learned? The big boys don’t win all the time,” he says. “If you believe to your soul that what is happening is wrong, you have to stand and be counted.

“Ultimately it’s a media war. You use the publicity to the advantage of the people. You attack the corporate image of the companies, the MPs and the councillors. And you use every stunt you can think of: armadas on the river, occupying offices, carrying white crosses – but never violence.”

The latest victory is postponement of plans by an oil storage business to double the size of its already huge depot at Canvey.

George Whatley outside the Oikos oil plant in Canvey.
George Whatley outside the Oikos oil plant in Canvey. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The operator Oikos Storage joins a roster of names such as Occidental Petroleum, United Refineries (part of Eni in Italy), Calor Gas and British Gas who have run into Whatley and his determined band of Canvey campaigners.

In 1973, Whatley and three neighbours sat in his kitchen on Limburg Road and decided to stand up against two separate plans to build massive new oil refineries on the banks of the Thames.

“It was always going to be a David and Goliath fight and, to be honest, we never thought we could possibly win.

“We just thought: why should these big corporations just barge their way into our back gardens and do what they want?”

The wider area was already the biggest petrochemical complex in Europe and Whatley claims that if Occidental and Eni were successful 800 of Canvey’s 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) of land would have been taken up by potentially dangerous infrastructure.

What became the Canvey Island Oil Refinery Resistance group battled for 14 years before success finally came and the oil companies scrapped their plans, blaming low product prices.

In the meantime the protests were intensified by local concerns after the Provisional IRA exploded a bomb in 1979 at a Texaco petroleum storage tank on the island.

George Whatley outside a Texaco terminal
In 1979, a campaign led by George Whatley (left) against two planned oil refineries in Canvey intensified after the IRA exploded a bomb at a Texaco petroleum storage tank on the island. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Whatley and his protesters – often made up of local mothers and their children in prams – blocked Canvey roads, and invaded the offices of Eni and Occidental in London.

They locked the local politicians in the Canvey council chamber and took an armada of boats up from Canvey to the Houses of Parliament.

Whatley even met the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, as ministers desperately and unsuccessfully tried to halt their campaign.

An anti-oil campaigners’ armada sails from Canvey to the Houses of Parliament.
An anti-oil campaigners’ armada sails from Canvey to the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The same determination was shown in south Essex in 2007 when Calor Gas, alongside Centrica (the owner of British Gas) and Sumitomo Corporation of Japan, tried to push through a plan to build a liquefied natural gas import facility. The People Against Methane Group, with Whatley at the helm, stopped that. In the 2010s a project to bring biodiesel to Canvey was defeated too.

Oikos Storage is now getting the Whatley treatment after unveiling plans to increase petroleum storage from 290,000 cubic metres capacity to 600,000.

George Whatley meets then-prime minister Harold Wilson as part of the campaign against plans in the 1970s to build two new oil refineries in Canvey.
George Whatley (right) meets Harold Wilson (left) as part of the campaign against plans in the 1970s to build two new oil refineries in Canvey. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The company, owned by SL Capital Infrastructure, also wants to install a deep-water jetty where larger tankers can unload fuel.

Oikos says it wants to expand “to ensure that the best use is made of an essential part of the UK’s fuelling needs in respect of its contribution to the security and resilience of the UK’s fuel supply and distribution system”.

A spokesperson confirmed its planning application, which was to have been submitted early this year, had been postponed but denied the whole project had been dropped.

On this occasion, local councillors have said they would oppose the scheme, which was expected to go for approval to the secretary of state for transport, as it had been deemed a “nationally significant infrastructure project”.

Another active member of the original Canvey refinery resistance group watching Oikos with concern is the musician Wilko Johnson, who lives in nearby Southend.

The Canvey-born former Dr Feelgood guitarist says he has mixed feelings about oil and its superstructures. “My sympathies are with environmentalists, absolutely, absolutely. I’m 74 and a fucking old geezer so my protest days are over but to tell you the truth, I was in love with Shell Haven and those [other now dismantled] refineries: the towers, the flames, the magic. It was Babylon.”