Citizens, officials cope with extended fuel shortage

Published 9:58 am Thursday, September 25, 2008

Unsure whether they would be able to get gas later, drivers waited long periods for a chance to fill up. By Thursday the BP stations were out of gas, along with all of the stations in Landrum. The Texaco was the only station in Columbus with gas.

The gas shortage dominated conversation among residents, who shared information about where they could find gas, and how the shortage was worse in other areas. Lines were reportedly even longer at some stations in Hendersonville and Asheville, where drivers quickly drained whatever scant supplies reached the mountain communities.

North Carolina Governor Mike Easley said on Wednesday that additional supplies were on the way to Western North Carolina, one of the hardest hit areas in the region, and he urged drivers to conserve fuel (see press release page 9).

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Governments took steps to reduce fuel consumption by their employees (see story page 8) and numerous organizations and institutions announced cancellations due to the gas shortage. Asheville-Buncombe Technical College canceled all classes through Sunday.

In Asheville and Charlotte, officials reported altercations at some stations where tensions ran high. Some motorists reportedly waited up to five hours at some Charlotte stations. Officials in many parts of the region also reported an increase in gasoline thefts and an increase in the number of vehicles abandoned after running out of gas.

Officials warned that the gas shortage could persist for another week or two as refineries gradually begin refilling the pipeline that serves the Southeast.

Gas shortage

The problem started after Hurricane Gustav hit the Louisiana coast on September 1, knocking out power and stalling production for many refineries in the area.

Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas coast, another major center for oil rigs and refineries. Again refineries had to be shut down ahead of the hurricane, and some are still shut down as they make repairs, perform safety inspections, and try to regain full power and staffing.

Since gasoline moves through the pipelines that serve this region at only about two to five miles per hour, it takes the gasoline a while to reach here even after refineries start up again. Once it does reach the area, gasoline distributors pick up the gasoline in tanker trucks at terminals, such as one in Spartanburg, and transport it to individual stations.

Industry officials say the Plantation pipeline that serves the region has experienced limited disruptions, but the Colonial pipeline, the largest artery through the region, has had &dquo;erratic and spotty&dquo; supply.

The Colonial pipeline, which normally supplies about 100 million gallons of gasoline, home heating oil, aviation fuel and other refined petroleum products per day, may have been down to about 75 percent of its capacity after Ike, according to estimates from some officials.

That figure is expected to be steadily climbing as more oil rigs and refineries resume operations. Officials have reported that about nine refineries have been down in Texas, reducing flow in the Colonial pipeline by about 2.3 million barrels a day. Another 10 or 11 refineries have been in &dquo;start-up mode&dquo; or are operating at reduced runs, further reducing the volume of gas moving north in the pipeline.

Larry Shirley, director of the N.C. State Energy Office, reported this week that about 89 percent of crude oil production in the Gulf was still shut down, along with about 75 percent of natural gas production. Shirley said 11 of 26 natural gas pipelines are not operating.

&bsp;Considering how long it takes facilities to reach rull capacity again and how slowly gas moves through the pipeline, officials said supplies could be tight for a while. Some officials said the supply system may not return to full capacity until the middle of October.

Colonial Pipeline Company says it restored power and operations as quickly as possible following the hurricanes, but it&squo;s been forced to operate at lower capacity because of reduced production at refineries, some of which still lack power or are making repairs.

&dquo;It&squo;s a complex process,&dquo; said Colonial Pipeline spokesman Steve Baker. &dquo;It&squo;s not like turning on a light switch. Unlike 2005 with Katrina and Rita, which were a month apart, these (hurricanes) were 11 days (apart).&dquo;

Higher demand

The reduction in supply has been coupled with what some gas station employees have described as &dquo;panic-buying&dquo; on the part of some drivers. The combination has resulted in a severe shortage, particularly in Tennessee, Georgia, and Western North Carolina.

Officials say areas such as Western North Carolina are hardest hit because they have a high number of independently owned gas stations, which are the first to be closed out of the gasoline distribution terminals when supplies are tight. Independent stations often buy gasoline on the spot market.

Some brand name stations, such as BP, have had better access to the limited supplies since they have long-term contracts with distributors.

Even stations that have received gas, however, say they are receiving much less than normal. Many say they are getting only half or less of their regular deliveries, which is not enough when drivers are buying more than normal to make sure they do not run out.

&dquo;The difference is that when we typically get a full load of gas that will last us one (to) three days, but because of the way that the consumer is purchasing right now, that may last six (to) eight hours,&dquo; said Citizens Fuel Vice President Scott Shealy.

Some areas, particularly in the eastern part of the Carolinas, have not suffered shortages because they receive gasoline from other sources. In fact, terminals in Wilmington and Charleston, which don&squo;t rely on the Colonial pipeline, are now sending gasoline to areas experiencing shortages. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole said some &dquo;confirmed allocations&dquo; in Richmond, Virginia should also be on the way to retailers in Western North Carolina.

Dole said in a press release that she expected the Spartanburg distribution terminal to be full by last night, and terminals in Belton and Charlotte should be filled today. It&squo;s unclear how long they may remain full.

To reduce the severity of the shortage, Gov. Easley and other officials asked citizens to be patient and to conserve until supplies return to a normal level.

&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;Press release from Gov. Easley&bsp;Gov. Mike Easley announced that substantial additional gasoline supplies have been released to North Carolina. &dquo;The major oil companies have agreed to make additional gas supplies available to hard hits areas of our state, particularly western North Carolina,&dquo; said Easley.&bsp; &dquo;We are getting tankers from Wilmington, Tennessee and South Carolina terminals to bring hundreds of thousands of gallons of gas to those most in need.&dquo;&bsp; &bsp;The governor said the additional gallons of gas will be available over the next two days.&bsp; &dquo;I am grateful to the oil companies for trying to get gas to our people.&bsp; They do not have to make these changes in their delivery routine and I have no power to make them.&bsp; They have agreed to do this voluntarily,&dquo; Easley said.&bsp; &dquo;I have a lot of staff working very hard on this and am asking people to be reasonable and cooperative with each other.&bsp; Conserve for a few more days and we will be fine.&bsp; We are going to continue to work hard to get every possible gallon of gasoline to the locations where it is needed.&dquo; The gas shortage that was caused by refinery shutdowns during Hurricanes Gustav and Ike has been worse in rural areas of North Carolina because those areas tend to have more independently-owned gas stations.&bsp; The independent stations typically do not have long term contracts for gasoline delivery, while stations that carry major brand names do have contracts.&bsp; The independents run out of gas first, consequently it is important that the brand companies have come through with extra fuel for the state. &bsp;