ATLANTA — A storm-related gas shortage in the Southeast that has left some places bone-dry and others with two-hour gas lines is expected to continue for at least another two weeks, energy experts and industry officials say.
The shortage began two weeks after Hurricane Gustav hit the oil-refining regions of the Gulf Coast on Sept. 1. Operations that shut down before that storm were just coming back online when Hurricane Ike hit, forcing another shutdown. The gas shortage, now in its third week, is particularly acute here in sprawling Atlanta, in Nashville in parts of the Carolinas and in Anniston, Ala.
“I don’t go anywhere once I find some and get my tank filled up,” says Alicia Woods, 32, who waited 45 minutes to fill up Sunday morning at a QuikTrip in Cobb County, Ga. “Going out, visiting friends, all that just has to wait. I have to keep my gas for getting back and forth to work.”
Long gas lines continued to plague the Charlotte area over the weekend. Asheville, N.C., shut down some government offices Friday.
“Things were pretty severe to the point gas stations did not have gas, and the ones that did have gas had an hour to two-hour wait,” said city spokeswoman Trisha Hardin.
The pipelines that supply the region are operating at less than normal capacity, due largely to storm-related power outages at Texas refineries, said Kenneth Medlock, energy fellow at the Baker Institute, a non-partisan public policy think tank at Rice University in Houston.
The Southeast, the only region of the nation that has no oil refining or major gasoline storage capacity, pumps all of its gasoline in by pipeline, he said.
“In isolation, neither of these storms would have been that big a deal, because there’s enough inventory (at stations) to make up the shortfall,” said Medlock. “But there was a three- to four-week period of refinery capacity not operating. That’s basically a month when nothing’s being produced.”
Panic buying — drivers topping off every time they happen across a station that actually has gas — made the problem worse, said Marylee Booth, executive director of the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association.
“If people saw a tanker drive up to a station, they’d start lining up. The panic has died down. It’s getting a little better every day.”
Gary Harris, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum and Convenience Marketers, whose members sell about 90% of the gasoline in North Carolina, says he expects two to four more weeks of shortages. “There was a lot of panic buying fueled by media coverage of the shortage,” he says. “Now, it’s hard to catch up.”
The shortage has residents like Woods changing their habits. There was even talk of canceling Saturday’s highly-anticipated football game in Athens between the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, which Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue dismissed as “ridiculous.”
Public transit ridership is soaring, more employees are telecommuting or working shorter weeks and Perdue is closely monitoring the situation in case it becomes necessary to close schools or take other steps, says his press secretary Bert Brantley.