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Inadequate supply keeps nervous drivers looking

Patrick Plettner rolled through a BP station at Cotswold. The computer of his BMW 525i said he had two miles left in his tank.

He'd already been to several dry stations around town.

“Who's got gas?” he asked the BP station attendant. The worker shrugged his shoulders.

Plettner and other drivers' gasoline tanks are the last stop of a complicated supply chain pushed out of whack by Hurricane Ike. It could take up to two weeks to be fully restored as less gas flows into the Charlotte region and as drivers, like Plettner, deal with the unusual sight of bagged pumps.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials don't track how many stations are out of gas at any particular time. But it was clear Wednesday that many stations in the region were intermittently running out as wholesalers drastically reduced deliveries to spread out the supply.

There was good news Thursday morning, however.

Many of the Charlotte-area stations without gas are Circle K stores, and there are several reports that many Circle K outlets will receive gas shipments today. One clerk at an Circle K station in southeast Charlotte said this morning that his store was told gas will be delivered today.

The shortages appear to be spotty today -- some stations with ample supplies, while nearby stores are out.

Refineries

Charlotte's week of shortages was set in motion the day before Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast – when oil refinery owners powered down the massive machines and their employees evacuated. That decision rippled its way north to Charlotte and areas as far away as New Jersey.

Refineries turn crude oil into petroleum products – gas, diesel and jet fuel. But a dormant refinery generally takes about 10 days to restart.

So there's less gas being produced now and less to buy at Charlotte-area gas stations. Short-term demand has also increased as worried drivers are “topping off” more, putting greater stress on already limited supplies.

Pipelines

The Colonial, one of the two major pipelines that supply Charlotte with most of its gas, delivers fuel from refineries to major cities around the Southeast. As Ike approached the Texas Gulf Coast on Friday, the company powered down its operations and the flow to Charlotte was disrupted.

Now the pipeline is ready to go; there are just fewer gallons to pump.

Colonial – and Plantation Pipe Line Co. – ship fuel to above-ground tanks at Charlotte facilities and others around the eastern half of the United States. From there, the fuel is piped to independently owned pumping stations, called terminals.

The gas then awaits fuel trucks from wholesalers or distributors that have an “allocation” based on their size and past use. The terminal owners set the wholesale price each evening, said Frank McNeill Jr., a gasoline wholesaler and member of the N.C. Petroleum & Convenience Marketers Association's board of directors. He is also president of McNeill Oil Co. in Aberdeen near Pinehurst.

Distributors

The allocations are meant to keep each wholesaler from taking more than his or her share. But, since Ike, they have been cut about 30 percent, McNeill estimated. The terminal owners are trying to stretch the depleted gasoline supplies coming in from the gulf. And so wholesalers are doing the same and delivering fewer gallons to each station, he said.

“They're reducing the allocations, and the terminals are running out,” he said. “We've been spoiled; they got that thing running so slick that whenever I need gas, I can go and get it. Except now. We're selling it at the stores faster than we can stock it.”

Stations

On Wednesday, the unofficial rationing along the supply chain was taking its toll on some Charlotte-area gas tanks.

At a Cotswold Texaco, Shane Gerken had 10 miles left in his Toyota Avalon as he drove by pumps that wore yellow “out of service” bags. The 25-year-old Bank of America employee left, vowing to ride his bike more.

Patrick McKinnon, an attendant at the BP across the street and one of three stations on the corner without gas Wednesday, said the station's three underground tanks together can hold more than 30,000 gallons.

But wholesaler Mark Oil was delivering only 3,000 gallons at a time, he said. And when the BP tanks get down to 700 gallons, the station stops pumping. It wants to conserve in the case of a true long-term dry spell, he said.

Motorists did find a fuel oasis, however, at the Shell on the corner of Cherokee and Providence roads. Some pumping there had stopped at or passed 10 or more stations on their way.

Three men from west Charlotte had driven miles before finding the station as they searched around town looking for jobs.

“I'm 42 years old, and I never seen it like this before in my life,” said Carey Anderson, one of the three job-hunters. “It's already hard enough on people without this.”

Observer staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed.

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