Oil firms are faulted as gas shortage lingers

The gas shortage continued today across the Charlotte metro region and scattered other areas in the Southeast, although a number of motorists reported finding shorter lines at the pumps than they had been seeing in recent days.

A survey of area stations compiled by The Observer showed that about 35 percent had gasoline for sale Tuesday afternoon. That is about double the percentage of recent days and might lend support to promises by some government and industry officials that the shortages will ease during the next few days.

The Observer's survey Tuesday afternoon showed that the gas supplies are spotty.

For example, a number of stations near the center of Charlotte reported having gas for sale. Several stations in the Matthews area and along Interstate 85 also had gas for sale. But stations in Union County and northern Mecklenburg County were largely without fuel. Also without gas were most stations in York County.

As has been the case in recent days, employees at many of the stations reported that gas supplies were exhausted quickly by motorists.

"We got a shipment this morning, but it lasted only a few hours," said an employee at an On The Run station in Davidson.

Gov. Mike Easley's office blamed oil companies Monday for prolonging Charlotte's gas shortage, saying they were limiting distribution to local gas stations despite a large shipment that came in Friday.

“The tanks at the terminal in Charlotte have plenty of gas,” said Alan Hirsch, Easley's policy director. “This large delivery came in as expected and still is coming in.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy said Monday that one of two gas pipelines serving Charlotte was back to pre-hurricane operation level, an announcement that Mayor Pat McCrory cheered as “welcomed news for the Charlotte consumer and commuter.”

But gasoline was still scarce throughout the day. Only one in five gas stations had any late Monday afternoon, according to an informal Observer survey of approximately 120 stations.

A spokeswoman for Shell confirmed that the company was limiting the release of gasoline to distributors. Robin Lebovitz, the spokeswoman, said that is standard practice when supply is low, as it has been since two hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast this month.

“We're just doing that to maintain sufficient supply for our customers,” Lebovitz said. “We are working as quickly as we can to catch up.”

She said Shell wholesalers are trucking in extra gasoline from Richmond, Va.

McCrory backed off an earlier prediction that a new gasoline shipment would come to Charlotte on Wednesday, instead saying it would arrive “midweek.” He urged drivers to conserve.

“The fact remains that gas product is still coming to Charlotte, but demand continues to be high,” McCrory said.

McCrory said he had considered ordering that gasoline be rationed, but decided that would create more panic and hoarding, which industry experts say are exacerbating the problem.

“There has to be patience,” McCrory said.

Oil refineries on the Gulf Coast are still recovering from hurricanes Gustav and Ike. And while all of North Carolina is getting less gasoline than usual, Charlotte has run out faster than other cities. Two factors – Charlotte's large population and its location on the pipeline – may contribute to that, said Gary Harris, executive director of North Carolina Petroleum and Convenience Marketers, which represents most of the state's gasoline distributors.

Statewide, distributors are getting between 50 and 70 percent of their normal orders at the pipeline terminals, Harris said. And that is slowly improving. But Charlotte's population is the biggest in the state, so catching up is more difficult, he said. Distributors say customers are emptying Charlotte gas stations as soon as they are resupplied, often out of panic.

“People have just got to get a grip,” Harris said.

Raleigh, another city along the pipeline, isn't having as many problems because it is situated between two terminals – one in Greensboro and another in Selma, he said. Wilmington can get gasoline delivered by sea.

“The problem with Charlotte is that you don't really have an alternative product,” Harris said.

Frank McNeill, president of McNeill Oil in Aberdeen, said areas to the east and north of the Charlotte region have been in better shape because they're able to get gasoline from the ports. He said that before Hurricane Ike made landfall, some oil companies imported oil from their European refineries to the N.C. coast.

State and local officials said last week that a large shipment of gasoline to Charlotte on Friday would alleviate some of the shortage. But lines remained long through the weekend, depleting gas station supplies within hours.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which had already scheduled its first teacher workday for today, will allow some teachers to work from home to conserve gas. Staff who must come to school, such as principals, secretaries and custodians, will be allowed to break away to fill their tanks as the jobs allow, district leaders said.

“Just like other employers, we're trying to strike that balance” of getting the work done while adapting to the shortage, said Chief Information Officer Nora Carr.

The supply of diesel for buses is steady enough that CMS does not expect to limit after-school activities, Carr said.

Staff writers Mark Johnson, April Bethea, Franco Ordonez, Amy Rainey, Dan Tierney and Ann Doss Helms contributed.