Red Diesel and Its Effects

Red diesel is simply diesel fuel with red dye added to it. In some countries it is a requirement by law that dye is added to low-tax fuel in order to deter its use in applications intended for higher taxed ones. Low taxed fuels are referred to as "dyed", while those with higher tax are called "clear" or "white".

In the UK "red diesel" is dyed gas oil intended for use in registered agricultural or construction vehicles as well as some other non-road applications such as boats. It is also allowed to be used as a home heating oil, aviation fuel and fuel for diesel vehicles not using public roads. It carries a much reduced tax levy than the clear diesel used in ordinary road vehicles and as it is widely available in the UK, authorities sometimes carry out roadside checks, especially in rural areas. Unauthorised use of red diesel can incur a heavy fine for tax evasion and spot checks have sometimes found as many as one in five motorists using red diesel.

The effects on boating

The legislation, found in the Hydrocarbon Oil Duties Act of 1979, allows boaters to use red diesel in UK waters, but neither permits nor prohibits them from using it outside the UK. This year, 2012, the Government announced a revised wording for the declaration which has caused much concern and confusion over the use of red diesel by the boating community. The RYA has challenged the proposed revised content and has stated their outrage at the Minister’s suggestion that UK sailors might not be permitted to use red diesel in international waters. They have also asked HM Revenue and Customs to amend or withdraw its proposal for a revised declaration and discussions are taking place between them.

The proposed revised declaration

The confusion is that this does not accurately reflect the correct position under either UK or international law. It requires signatories to falsely acknowledge that they are aware of restrictions on fuel usage that do not exist. This is what the RYA is objecting to. If the wording simply reminded recreational boaters that other countries may apply their own legislation to vessels in their territorial waters then it would be consistent with UK and international law.

The present situation

At the present time UK boaters have to comply with any applicable regulations of a coastal state. In 2011, however, the EU opened "infringement proceedings" against the UK regarding the EU Marking Directive which relates to the availability of red diesel in the UK for private pleasure craft. The RYA claimed that the EU were bullying UK sailors in spite of the Government having agreed a deal which allowed sailors to pay a part tax on 40% of their diesel used for heating and the full tax on the other 60%. But the EU does not agree with yachtsmen using red diesel for propulsion at all.

The problem is that in many areas of the UK, especially Scotland, Ireland and the West Country, only red diesel is available and boaters run the risk of being prosecuted if they stray into the waters of nearby EU countries with red diesel in their tanks. I have actually read recently that no marina in the UK supplies white diesel. So how do you fill up your tanks with the clear fuel – transport it by jerry can from a local garage forecourt, or arrange delivery by road tanker? While it seems that France, Holland and Germany have agreed to accept the use of red diesel in UK boats as long as it can be backed up with a UK VAT receipt, Belgium remains stubborn, insisting that the UK is infringing EU law. They threaten to fine and prosecute any crew entering a Belgian port with even tiny amounts of red diesel in their tanks. In reality, however, it seems that only about 6 crews have been fined to date. It seems ironical that Belgium, which has less than 50 miles of coastline, is trying to dictate to the UK which has 8,000 miles of coast.

Even though France, Holland and Germany seem to have agreed to UK vessels using the red diesel, there are instances of skippers being threatened with large fines. One owner was informed by the Dutch authorities that his paperwork, showing payment of duty, was not adequate. In 2006 French officials are said to have dipped the tanks of UK boats and imposed fines if any red diesel was detected. Also German Customs have apparently hit some red diesel users. Two mega-yachts were boarded and fined thousands of dollars in Kiel for having red-tinted fuel in their tanks. This highlights another issue, that large amounts of clear diesel may have been legally purchased and used by vessels, but when examined, their tanks may still contain some traces of the red dye and they could still be prosecuted. In fact even if a tank was topped up with white diesel whenever it became half empty, it would still need several refills before it reached the acceptable 0.07%.

Ireland has no problem with the red dyed fuel. Although their own marked diesel is green, they are quoted as stating that they have no colour bar on diesel.

Another concern is that while most sailors would not object to paying the full rate of duty on diesel, as they normally only use it for secondary propulsion, white diesel contains biofuel, sometimes known as FAME (fatty acid methyl esters) which can damage older engines and is more likely to cause diesel bug, as it attracts water.

The four key bodies involved in the campaign to retain red diesel for UK boaters are the Royal Yachting Association (RYA), the British Marine Federation (BMF), the Inland Waterways Association and the Federation of Petroleum Suppliers.

So in practice – what do you do?

If visiting Belgium:-

  • Be aware that you risk being handed a substantial fine if you are carrying red diesel even though you may be able to show the correct paperwork proving that duty has been paid.

If visiting the Netherlands:-

  • You may have red diesel in your tanks but must not carry any extra.
  • You must show a receipt which must not be more than 1 year old.
  • Be aware that the Regional Custom Offices do not always act according to the policy of the National Office Customs Administration. If you are fined, the National Office can investigate your case, but you must keep all the paperwork involved.

If visiting France:-

  • A British resident may arrive in French waters for a temporary stay as long as they refuel with correctly taxed diesel during their stay in France. It is advised to use up as much red diesel as possible before you fill up with white, in order to dilute the traces of red dye as much as possible.
  • If the boat remains in France for an extended stay, invoices for any diesel purchased should be retained for three years to show that duty paid fuel has been bought since the boat’s arrival in France. They must be kept on board to demonstrate that you have acted in good faith, in case of the fuel being inspected.
  • Be aware that it is not permitted to purchase rebated diesel for recreational boating in France.

If visiting other EU member states:-

  • Keep receipts for diesel bought in the UK and ask the retailer to mark them "duty paid".
  • Log the date of refuelling and engine hours to reinforce your records.
  • Do not carry extra amounts of red diesel anywhere apart from your main fuel tanks.
  • Do not buy red diesel in any country where rebated fuel for leisure craft is prohibited.

In conclusion

It is hard to see where this will end. It really is a can of worms. Hopefully, with the help of organisations such as the RYA, BMF, Inland Waterways and Federation of Petroleum Suppliers, UK boaters will be able to carry on cruising abroad without danger of prosecution. In the meantime the sensible thing to do is to be prepared, do your homework about the legal situation in the countries you intend to visit and beware of straying into, or maybe boycott those who have a definitely anti-red-diesel attitude.


This situation is so fluid that this article should not be taken as a definitive statement on the current situation and accepts no responsibility for any inconsistencies between actual practices and the above article.

Author – Dee White

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