State News

Gas hunt: Some stations still dry, others not

Posted September 29, 2008 7:31 a.m. EDT
Updated September 29, 2008 11:36 p.m. EDT

— Gas supplies in North Carolina might not get up to normal for another week or two, experts said Monday.

Since Hurricanes Ike and Gustav damaged Gulf Coast refineries, motorists have been faced with closed gas stations and long lines at open ones.

The gas shortages have been worse in Charlotte – where AAA estimates only one in seven gas stations is open – and the mountain areas around Asheville, which was first hit by the shortage. Spotty supply problems have cropped elsewhere, including Raleigh and the Triad.

It will take between seven and 14 days for the gas supply to return to normal across North Carolina.

"Pipeline deliveries are slowly increasing, and the situation will eventually resolve itself," Gov. Mike Easley said. "We will continue to work on this, so I ask everyone to reasonably conserve, and don't keep topping off, because that creates an excessive demand on a smaller supply."

Tom Crosby, with AAA Carolinas, said that five refineries returned to full operations this weekend. That means that more fuel will be arriving in North Carolina, but much of it is still in transit in pipelines, moving between 100 and 120 miles a day toward terminals, Crosby said.

"You just don't flip a switch and turn a refinery off," said Gary Harris, with the North Carolina Petroleum & Convenience Marketers Association. "It takes time to gear them down; it takes time to gear them back up and bring them up to capacity."

Additionally, many stations are receiving only 50 to 70 percent of the amount of gas they normally do in full shipments.

"We are trying to catch up on supply and meet demand at the same time, which is extremely difficult," Harris said.

The Triangle not been hit as hard as Asheville and Charlotte by panic buying, in part because it lies between two major gas terminals.

Some stations, though, were still running out of fuel – either completely or of one or two grades. An Exxon station on Gorman Street in Raleigh had run out of regular gas, but was still selling premium Monday.

Some stations run dry faster than others, although each company is allocated a set, certain amount gas. Stations that have contracts with major oil companies, however, get top priority and can use up most of the gas in the pipeline.

Those market conditions present great concerns for some gas station owners.

"You don't have any gas, you're not going to have any customers," driver Paul Kirk said.

Those drivers who could find gas were paying higher prices than most of the nation. A gallon of unleaded, regular gas averaged $3.894 in North Carolina Monday – about 25 cents more than the national average.

Prices were highest in Asheville at $4.132 a gallon and in Charlotte at $4.079 a gallon. Triangle drivers were paying an average $3.874, and Fayetteville motorists, $3.754.

Officials have urged drivers not to top off their tanks, draining supplies, but some drivers said they feel they have a reason to be worried.

The North Carolina Attorney General's Office was continuing to investigate more than 4,300 reports of price gouging in the wake of Hurricane Ike. The office has sent out letters asking 26 gas station owners in 13 counties, including Cumberland County, why they had raised prices to at least $4.49 a gallon.

The owners had until Monday to respond to the attorney general's letters.

"Nothing surprises me anymore with buying gas," driver Carol Stavisky, of Kinston, said. "First they get the prices up, then they take it away completely."

Charlotte, Atlanta going dry

Gas supply in the Charlotte area "presents the greatest concern," said Easley, who has been talking to oil companies.

The governor said that Colonial Pipeline officials told him large shipments started arriving at Charlotte's terminal Friday. But some oil companies have not released the full deliveries, because they are waiting on the next shipment.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said that the Department of Energy told him over the weekend that another major shipment of fuel would be delivered Wednesday. McCrory, who is the Republican candidate for governor, cut short campaign events Monday to return to the Queen City.

The state government has been trying to find additional sources of gas, including shipments from ports at Wilmington, Chesapeake, Va., and North Charleston, S..C., Easley said.

"Today, I have been trying to do three things: one, get the oil companies to release more gas to the Charlotte terminal; two, since noon, remove any obstacle, including cost trucking more gas to Charlotte; and three, in the alternative, let the independent stations truck it in," Easley said.

Easley also urged oil companies to "improve the accuracy of the information getting to us so we can give better predictability to the public."

In Georgia, experts said it could take up two weeks for supplies to get back to normal.

911 dispatchers in Douglasville, a suburb of Atlanta, got flooded with calls asking where people could find gas. Drivers also followed gasoline tankers to stations.