Business

Gas terminals work furiously to pump up local supplies

Posted September 30, 2008 4:53 p.m. EDT
Updated September 30, 2008 9:24 p.m. EDT

— A steady stream of tanker trucks pulled into a local terminal of a major gasoline pipeline Tuesday as distributors worked hard to resupply North Carolina retailers whose pumps have run dry.

Refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast that were damaged by Hurricane Ike more than two weeks ago have been slow coming back online, meaning the pipelines that serve the Southeast have been running at less than capacity. Many retailers have run out of gas, or some grades of gas, across the region, and drivers have waited in line up for hours to fill up at stations that have fuel.

"The distribution chain from the major oil companies at the refineries and pipelines is just coming up to full strength," said Gary Harris, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Marketers Association. "As that product comes up, it has to be distributed into a system that was drained almost white last week by the shortages that went through there. We're trying to catch up on supply and keep meeting demand, which is extremely difficult."

Gas moves through the pipeline at about 4 mph, so it takes 10 days to two weeks to get from Texas to North Carolina, he said.

Although most truck drivers at the Selma terminal Tuesday afternoon said they were headed toward Raleigh, Harris said that doesn't necessarily mean all area stations will be immediately flush with fuel.

"The distribution system is kind of complicated, and people don't tend to view it in that stance," he said. "It's (not) like you can just run a truck somewhere and pull fuel and move it."

Fuel is allocated to different distributors across North Carolina, so once one has tapped its entire allotment, it can't get more until a new shipment arrives, he said. Also, some oil companies said they aren't releasing their full allocation to Raleigh-area distributors because they want to be sure they have enough gas to last until their next shipment arrives through the pipeline.

Before Ike, for example, distributors might have filled 15 tankers at a time through the Selma terminal. Now, they likely are limited to 10 tankers.

That has led some retailers to scramble and turn to other terminals, including Wilmington, Charleston, S.C., and Virginia.

"The majors have diverted tankers into the Chesapeake (Bay) and Charleston harbor, and there's a port terminal in Wilmington where Hess has a distribution area," Harris said. "Exxon has a tanker in there now moving product into North Carolina."

The Triangle is more fortunate than Charlotte and western North Carolina because it is straddled by terminals in Selma, Apex and Greensboro, he said.

Despite that drivers around the Triangle were still finding some gas stations empty on Tuesday.

“Tina Wilbanks said she drove several miles before finding a gas station in Durham that had a tanker truck in the parking lot.

“I saw the truck so I said, ‘let me stop ‘cause apparently they are getting gas,’” Wilbanks said.

Gas station owners said long lines have left them with little supply.