Gas could stabilize in weeks

Columbus Day this year might be more than a celebration of a European's discovery of the Americas. It could also be the day when the Augusta area's gasoline supplies return to normal.

 

Power was restored Friday to the last of the 16 undamaged oil refineries that were knocked out of commission by Hurricane Ike, which swept through the Gulf Coast two weeks ago.

But the shortage of gasoline to this area, and other pockets of the Southeast, will persist for a few more weeks, said Michael Fields, the executive director of the South Carolina Petroleum Marketers Association.

According to the U.S. Energy Department, three refineries remained shut down Friday and five more were classified as restarting. Ten other refineries affected by hurricanes Gustav and Ike were running at reduced levels, the government reported.

Ryan Mossman, the vice president and general manager of fuel management for Houston-based FuelQuest, said Oct. 13 -- Columbus Day -- is a good target date for the Augusta area's supply woes to wane.

It takes seven days or more to restart a refinery, Mr. Mossman said.

Then it takes four to six days for the gasoline to travel 900 miles from Texas to the North Augusta terminal, where most of the gas stations in the Augusta-Aiken area normally get their supply.

"It travels about 3 to 5 miles per hour," Mr. Mossman said.

Lines at some gas stations are moving much slower than that. Motorists lined up into the street again Friday, and scattered gas stations reported they were out of fuel.

What is making the shortage worse, Mr. Mossman said, are the people keeping their tanks as full as possible because they're worried about missing work if they can't find gas later -- and that includes businesses with fleets.

"The oil industry infrastructure is not like a grid on the downtown street where if something is shut down, I go one street over," Mr. Mossman said. "You've got particular areas that are served off particular pipelines or spurs of pipelines. Alternative options are limited."

Midland Valley is in one of those areas. Mr. Fields said the North Augusta fuel terminal has been running so low this week that it is no longer the No. 1 option as a supplier for area gas stations.

The stations are flocking to the coast and getting their tanker trucks filled up in Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., he said. Those terminals are being supplied by ship with gasoline purchased from Europe.

"That's been the saving grace for us," Mr. Fields said. "Because we are so pipeline dependant, that is what has kept our head above water."

FuelQuest, which manages fuel for companies, has been directing gasoline shipments into the Southeast from places such as Ohio and Illinois to compensate for the shortage.

"We've taken tanker trucks from Maryland into North Carolina and South Carolina. It seems crazy, but you've got to go where the product is," Mr. Mossman said.

The panic buying will stop once the supply returns to normal.

"More product shows up, there are less stations out equals less panic," Mr. Mossman said.

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

GROVETOWN: "Circle K, we have gas," a cheerful Tonya Bovee said Friday afternoon as she answered the phone and rang up purchases for a steady stream of customers. The store had no limits on how much customers could buy as long as they had cash or cards, the cashier said.

BEECH ISLAND: Todd's Convenience Food Store on Sand Bar Ferry Road in Beech Island was packed Friday. "We actually have it right now," said the owner's wife, Karen Todd. They were limiting customers to $25 maximum purchases to try to stretch their supply, she said.

WAYNESBORO, GA: The Golden Pantry Food Pantry in downtown Waynesboro was out of gas Friday afternoon, but the Stop N Shop on Sixth Street had gas.

-- Sandy Hodson, staff writer