Prices ranged from $2.99 to $3.29 a gallon in the Triangle area for regular grade.
Officials reported Thursday afternoon that 40 of Mecklenburg County's 230 gas stations were closed. That number was expected to rise as drivers fearful of shortages crowded open stations to purchase gas at $3.19 a gallon.
Fuel prices in Buncombe County in western North Carolina had already reached $4 a gallon Wednesday evening.
AAA officials said the Carolinas experienced the largest single day spike in gasoline prices on Wednesday as prices jumped 30 to 50 cents. Prices were changing so much on Thursday that a spokesman with AAA said he could not even get a handle on where the highest and lowest prices are in the state.
"I think it went up 21 cents since Wednesday," an employee at a BP in Benson said. The employee said he changed his sign twice before noon and then decided to leave the final cent column blank.
"What's the use?" he asked. "At the end of the day I will. Right now, it's just too crazy."
So what is behind this gas crunch?
It's not the damage to refineries in the Gulf Coast, officials said. The real problem: the pipeline that supplies almost all of our gas had no electricity until Thursday.
If you fill up your vehicles with gasoline in the Triangle, there is a 90 percent chance the gas was delivered along a 5,000-mile series of pipelines. Several companies operate lines that run through a corridor from the Texas coast to the Northeast. When Hurricane Katrina knocked out electricity, the storm cut the fuel line to North Carolina.
"This storm has absolutely changed everything, but it's a temporary change," Bill Weatherspoon of the N.C. Petroleum Council said. "It knocked out electricity to the pipelines, but we're seeing signs that that might get restored in a day or two."
On Thursday, fuel began to trickle back into North Carolina at pipeline terminals in Charlotte, Greensboro, Selma and Apex.
The Motiva terminal on Ten-Ten Road in Apex, for example, is a stopping point on the pipeline, and it mainly feeds Shell stations in the Triangle. A spokesperson with the Motiva terminal said they were getting about 25 percent of its normal flow, and they still have a good supply in those storage tanks.
Despite the slow flow, most major chains said they would have enough gas to meet demands over the Labor Day weekend. Some smaller independent convenience stores may run out of regular unleaded gasoline, officials said. It also may take awhile for the supply problem to work itself out.
"I think it's a matter of weeks for it to get over, probably two to three weeks," Gary Harris of the N.C. Petroleum Marketers said. "Hopefully, it will not be as tight a supply as we're seeing right now."
Officials said the gas pipeline should be running at 61 percent of its capacity by Friday.
Consumers should "be smart and don't panic," Weatherspoon said. "Buy, don't buy at today's prices and look foolish next week or the next week. Just relax."
In a news release Thursday, Gov. Mike Easley called on North Carolina residents to conserve fuel by carpooling and using fuel-efficient vehicles. Easley has restricted state government travel and asked state employees to meet by teleconference when possible.
Cities and towns across the viewing area also are making changes to save gas.
In Fayetteville, city buses will be free to encourage more people to use them. The mayor also has asked police to save on gasoline consumption by walking their beats, and city employees will work different hours to avoid driving during rush hour.
In Raleigh, police will increase their foot and bicycle patrols. Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker also encourages more people to consider riding city buses.
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