Governor's office: Distributors won't turn gas loose

Plenty of gasoline is available at the Charlotte fuel terminal, but oil companies won't allow some of it to be distributed to gas stations, a top aide to N.C. Gov. Mike Easley said Monday afternoon.

Alan Hirsch, Easley's policy director, said some of the oil companies will not let distributors purchase a full allotment, fearing they will run out of fuel before the next shipment comes in.

Meanwhile, the gasoline shortage continued unabated in the Charlotte metro region.

One Observer reporter said he drove past 17 gas stations in east Charlotte, Matthews and Mint Hill on Monday evening. Not a single station had gas for sale, he said.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who said last Friday that a large shipment of fuel was being sent to Charlotte and that conditions would improve over the weekend, said Monday afternoon that motorists in the region should remain patient. McCrory said another large shipment is coming by midweek.

But with many motorists driving on fumes and waiting in long lines at gas stations, the news from Easley's aide certainly won't build bonds of friendship with oil companies.

State and local officials last week had predicted that a large shipment of gasoline through the pipeline on Friday from the Gulf of Mexico to the gas terminal in Charlotte would help settle down the crisis.

"The tanks at the terminal in Charlotte have plenty of gas," Hirsch said Monday afternoon. "This large delivery came in as expected and still is coming in."

The oil companies typically allow distributors to buy the same amount they sold last month or more, if they'd like. In times of shortage, however, the companies can restrict distributors to, say, 90 percent or 80 percent of their allotment. Hirsch said he was told at least one oil company was limiting distributors to 50 percent of their allotment.

"What they say is there's so much pent-up demand that if they that if they put out the full allocation, they fear they'll run out before the next shipment," Hirsch said. "This is the concern of the companies: Not to run out too soon."

Hirsch said Easley's office has convinced some oil companies to open up their supplies in areas where there is no shortage, especially port cities that receive gasoline by tanker, such as Wilmington; Chesapeake, Va., and Charleston, S.C. Then he has to convince distributors to make the long haul to get the gas.

"We're trying to connect the distributors with the places where there is gas," Hirsch said.

State leaders say they are perplexed about the cause of the problem. They say refineries are running, the gas is flowing, and trucks are running -- overtime.

"Their (pipeline and distributor companies') representation to us on Friday was that this would be sufficient over a couple days to get us back to a tight but reasonable situation," Hirsch said, noting that things didn't work out that way.

Now state officials are trying to determine if the problem is in supply or in moving the gas around.

"Is it a distribution problem?" Hirsch asked.

Some shortages are expected, because a number of Gulf-based refineries have not resumed full operation after Hurricane Ike struck the Houston-Galveston area earlier this month. But officials said they expected to provide enough fuel to get the area through the shortage. Full supplies are expected in 10 days to two weeks.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said Sunday the Department of Energy told him over the weekend that another major shipment of fuel would be delivered Wednesday.

A spokeswoman with the Energy Department could not confirm a new shipment, but said in an email that “the department is in close communication with the mayor and other elected officials and is doing everything possible to minimize the impacts of fuel constraints to the Charlotte area.”

Tom Crosby, a spokesman for AAA of the Carolinas, said patience will be needed.

"They make it 100 or 120 miles a day on the pipeline," Crosby added, referring to the pace of fuel on the pipelines serving the western Carolinas from the Gulf area.

He also told WCNC-TV, the Observer's news partner, that tanker trucks sent to the Charlotte area from coastal cities, where fuel is received by barge, did not deliver enough gas to make a difference.

Crosby said that in addition to Charlotte, some gas shortages have popped up in other areas. For example, he said Concord was OK for a while but is now starting to have problems. It's a big contrast to areas north and east of Charlotte, including Greensboro, where some residents say they've not had any trouble finding gas.

Part of the problem is that many drivers are still going the pump with a half-tank of gas or more, officials said.

McCrory said Friday's fuel shipment to Charlotte did help, and normally would have met consumers' needs. But he said demand has been high. “We've got to get back to normal demand circumstances to allow supply to catch up,” he said.

But some drivers said they have reason to panic.

"People still have to get back and forth to work," said Chris Sharpe of Columbia, who was in town to visit friends. "It's either (fill up now) or not work, and I've got to work."

Sharpe and a friend walked more than two miles down Woodlawn Road early Sunday afternoon and passed several empty stations before they found one with fuel. Sharpe said he had been warned to get gas before arriving in town but said he figured there would be gas before he left. After a half-hour wait, he and his friends made the trek -- gas can in tow -- back to their car at a bank near Park Road. "To have to park my truck and walk, it's almost disrespectful," Sharpe said.

Other drivers uttered frustration as they drove from station to station. One man threw his keys to the ground in anger after he pulled into another station on Woodlawn only to be told it had just run out of fuel. It was the third station he'd gone to.

Meanwhile, other drivers found new ways to get around town.

Lisa Wallace of Harrisburg was among hundreds of people who crowded the light-rail platform on Stonewall Street after the Carolina Panthers game. Wallace said she had thought about driving her car to the game but reconsidered after searching for gas this weekend.

Instead, she parked her car at her hotel and took the train both to the game and later to meet friends who live near South Boulevard.

The train ride helped her save gas and had another benefit: A ticket, she said, costs only "one-fourth of a gallon of gas."

While motorists fume about the inability to find gas, merchants say they also are suffering.

"I'm losing revenue," Ram Yada, who operates four convenience stores in Charlotte, told WCNC. "I've got no customer service. People are not coming inside. I'm not selling anything inside."

WCNC-TV contributed.

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