Fearing Ike, some stations ask for 10-gallon gas limit

At least one major gas station chain in the Carolinas began rationing gas Thursday, amid fears that Hurricane Ike would deplete supplies already diminished by Hurricanes Hanna and Gustav.

The Pantry, which owns more than 1,600 stores in 11 states – including Petro Express – put up signs at all of its stations asking customers to limit their purchases to 10 gallons. The company is one of the largest gas-station chains in the Charlotte area, with 28 stores in Charlotte and dozens more in surrounding counties.

There was no shortage of gasoline Thursday. CEO Pete Sodini said the move was precautionary and caused by a large spike in the price of wholesale gasoline and the shutdown of several refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We wanted to head off any panic buying,” Sodini said. “What you're going to do if you go out and fill up every car in the household (is that) you're going to run this market out of supply temporarily.”

Sodini's caution stems from the aftermath that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Consumers rushed to fill up before prices rose above the then-high price of $3 a gallon. Some stations ran out of gas entirely.

Sodini said he's aware that some people might accuse him of creating a panic, but added, “They've got to tell me how I win by doing this. ... We sacrificed a lot of volume today.”

A check of a dozen Charlotte-area stations Thursday afternoon and evening showed that Petro Express seemed to be alone in asking customers to limit their take. Most of the stations checked by the Observer had no long lines, and prices seemed close to the previous day's Charlotte-area average of $3.70.

About 10 p.m., all pumps were busy at the Exxon station on U.S. 74 in Matthews near Interstate 485. While customers pumped gas, a tanker truck was delivering a load of gasoline.

"I heard that prices would be going up $1 a gallon tomorrow," said one young male customer, declining to give his name. "I thought it would be smart to buy it tonight, in case the price goes up ... or in case the stations run out of gas."

At the Petro Express on N.C. 75 in Waxhaw, the town's fire trucks were filling up late Thursday night. But only half the pumps were in use.

Earlier in the day, at the Petro Express on Charlottetown Avenue and Third Street, some customers ignored the paper signs taped to the gas pumps. Others paused to read them.

“You've got to be kidding me,” one woman muttered, scanning the sign.

Mary Sistrunk, 48, of Charlotte said she was surprised the signs were up – but that she didn't think customers would pay attention to the request.

She said she wasn't worried about a potential shortage of gas or rising prices that could result.

Terrence Shelton, 28, of Charlotte said he fills up at the station three times a week and hadn't seen signs like that before.

“It did shock me, and it does worry me about the price going up, and the demand going up as well,” he said.

The oil and gas industry was closely watching Ike on Thursday because it was headed straight for the nation's biggest complex of refineries and petrochemical plants. The upper Texas coast accounts for one-fifth of U.S. refining capacity.

Wholesale gasoline prices spiked 30 percent Thursday, or nearly $1 a gallon, out of fear of what Ike might do. That means motorists can expect higher prices at the pump, though how much higher depends largely on how long refineries are shuttered after the storm.

Exxon Mobil Corp., Valero Energy Corp., ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil Co. began halting operations as Ike closed in.

For now, the pipeline that brings most of North Carolina's gasoline up from the Gulf is filling all of its orders as scheduled, said Colonial Pipeline spokesman Steve Baker.

But mandatory evacuations could cause a temporary shutdown of the pipeline, which would crimp supply. “We don't know where it's going to hit or what effect it's going to have,” Baker said. Nearly 1 million people along the Texas coast were ordered to evacuate ahead of the storm, which was expected to strike late today or early Saturday.

Tom Crosby, spokesman for AAA Carolinas, said there is and should continue to be plenty of gas available and that people should not rush to the pump.

He said the only stations he had heard that were rationing supply were those owned by The Pantry.

“If everybody starts panicking and filling up their tanks, we can create a shortage,” he said. “We can create it ourselves.”

The Pantry, based in Sanford, southwest of Raleigh, also owns stores operating under the Kangaroo name.

It is No. 405 on this year's Fortune 500 list, with $6 billion in revenue last year. It bought Charlotte-based Petro Express in 2007.

Most people abided by the signs Thursday, Sodini said.

“If somebody comes in and pulls 15 (gallons), there's nobody going out there to chastise them,” he said. “Please don't bring in 50-gallon containers and start draining the house dry.”

The Pantry will re-evaluate the inventory levels at all of the regional pipeline terminals today, and some of the 10-gallon limit signs may come down, Sodini said. But in areas where supply is low, the signs may remain up.

“We just wanted to make sure,” he said.

Observer staff writer Steve Lyttle and the Associated Press contributed.

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