Growing Gas Crisis In Southeastern United States Hurricanes Gustav and Ike ravaged the off-shore drilling stations in the Gulf of Mexico, seriously hurting pumping ability and supply networks. Consumers in some states are now facing general gasoline shortages and long lines at the pump.
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Growing Gas Crisis In Southeastern United States

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are headlines on some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Banks are charging one another more to borrow money, following yesterday's failure of the $700 billion-dollar bailout plan. And after Wall Street's deep losses yesterday, the Dow today regained about half of that ground.

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Lines more than an hour long, reports of fist fights at gas stations, frustration is mounting for many drivers in the Southeast more than two weeks after the double wallop of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Many in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama still face gas shortages that they were told would be only temporary.

Refineries were forced to cut production after storms pounded the Gulf Coast. Things got worse when some people began stockpiling gas. More fuel flowed into some areas over the past couple of days, but many drivers continue to sit in long lines, and pay a premium at the pump. If you're in the Southeast, what's happening at the gas stations where you live?

Are stations closed or reopening? Do you still see long lines? 800-989-8255. Drop us an email. That address is talk@npr.org. You can also weigh in on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Joining us now from his office is Patrick Johnson, Atlanta bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor. Nice to have you on the broadcast.

Mr. PATRICK JONSSON (Atlanta Bureau Chief, Christian Science Monitor): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And I understand when you are to get lunch today there in Atlanta, you passed five gas stations that were closed.

Mr. JONSSON: Yeah. There's still not much gas here to be honest with you. We keep hearing that supplies are going to be running up, and we've got tankers coming in, but there's been no change really in the last, I'd say, 10 days.

And a lot of the people I talked to who are outside the government are pretty skeptical of promises of quick relief, to say at least two more weeks of basically, you know, changing their life around, and trying to plan on, you know, what you're going to do if you can't find gas on your way to the store or wherever you're going.

CONAN: Well, our memory spans are short, but it just seems a lifetime ago that Ike hit the Texas coast?

Mr. JONSSON: Yeah. But it hit at a bad time. The refineries were already ramping down summer fuel production. Of course Gustav had hit. So they had shut down for that, and then Ike came very quickly behind that, and hit of course Houston, and shut down 15 - I think there's about 56 major refineries in the area, but shut 15 down.

So supplies were already at a pretty - not historic low, but supplies were, I think - they hadn't been that low since 1967. And then you had these storms, so you had basically very little gasoline coming through the pipelines. And when people started noticing tax going on to the pump handles, they reacted, I don't know, reasonably or not reasonably, but they started topping up and running the pumps, and that's where you saw the long lines and the tensions at the pumps, and of course that exacerbated the problem.

But you know, as a motorist myself, you have to wonder, you know, you do have to go places, and it's hard to criticize people too much for simply trying to make sure that we got some way to get to work.

CONAN: Why is this so regionalized? I mean, don't these refineries supply fuel for the most - much of the country?

Mr. JONSSON: Well - yeah, they do, but this area like Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte are - Asheville, and starting to think this is all over, but it's basically two pipelines that come through here, and all the gas comes through here. (Unintelligible) the colonial and the plantation pipelines. So the city like Atlanta depends entirely on this pipeline. And with - so, there's no other - there's no backup system, so basically if there's not - no gas coming to that pipeline, there's no gas at the pump.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation. Again, our number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Our guest again, Peter - Patrick Johnson of the Christian Science Monitor. Pete's with us. Pete on the line from Charlotte, North Carolina.

PETE (Caller): Yeah. I think the problem is that you've got like colonial pipelines, like you said. One company that's just too big, and were depending on it to heavily, kind of like depending on AIG too heavily. In - here in Charlotte, there's been lines three to five hours, just as last weekend. I've seen people pumping - I mean, taking a gas can and pumping - putting oil - I mean gasoline in empty cups for people to get home. So it's just really ridiculous. Then you've got regional events like, you know the local amusement park has their Halloween thing, the scare winds and you know, monster cons next week and different things that are, you know, just real short-term.

CONAN: Yeah.

PETE: But people are not being able to get to.

CONAN: Yeah, Patrick Johnsson, I assume that there's a lot more effect on businesses than just the monster con that Pete is talking about. For one thing, a lot of people, you know, drive for business.

Mr. JONSSON: Absolutely. I know Asheville, North Carolina had a terrible shortage. It's getting a little bit better now, but - but I know pizza drivers were stranded, and landscapers weren't working, and a lot of people who work at telecommutings become very popular. Light rail in Atlanta, Martha the local, you know transportation authority. I've seen rides increased by a million in the last 10 or two weeks, 10 days or two weeks so, yeah, it's hard to measure, the impact I think on business and the economy, but it's major and it's having to, you know, just people changing their habits. I know there was a technical college in Asheville that closed for a couple of days. Today, and speaking of Charlotte, I know the - they have teacher work days. I think they had one yesterday and today and they're asking teachers or are telling teachers that can stay home instead of coming to school and all that. So, you know, no classes canceled there in Charlotte but certainly it shows the concern.

CONAN: Pete, what are you doing?

PETE: Well, fortunately, I have a very short drive to work. So, I'm in good shape and I had filled up when I went to visit the in-laws in Virginia. So, I came in with a full tank. So, I've blessedly not had to wait in line.

CONAN: Good for you.

PETE: I'm hoping that they get the gas tanks full soon.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

PETE: Mm hmm.

CONAN: Let's go now to Bill. Bill is with us on the line from Asheville in North Carolina.

BILL: Hello.

CONAN: And Bill, we're told the situation in Asheville, a little bit better.

BILL: Well, not necessarily. We got some gas over the weekend, but the reason I was calling was there had been quite a few gas stations over here that have intentionally being gouging the price of their gas. They've been saying that they don't have fuel when they actually do in the tanks.

CONAN: Really? Why would they not sell gas that they've got in the ground? They're in business to sell gas?

BILL: Yes, they are in business to sell gas, but they are also in business to make money, and as long as they say there's not much gas as there really is, they can keep the price high. In Asheville and in surrounded areas, I've seen gas go as high as $5 a gallon.

CONAN: Patrick Jonsson, you suspect there's anything to Bill's suspicions?

Mr. JONSSON: I don't know but a price gouging is certainly a huge concern. There's been hundreds of complaints filed in Georgia. I'm sure similar things are going on in North Carolina and Tennessee as well. So - and Alabama, too. I know the legislature there is considering a bill that would increase fines for gas stations I think to $5,000 if they price gouge in times like this. So, that is a huge, huge concern and - but you know, the other side of that is - why don't you talk to petroleum executives and people who you know, oversee the system.

Oftentimes, Asheville's a great example actually because it's so, it's kind of far removed. It's up in the mountains obviously, it takes money to get those trucks up those hills and you know, to kind of far-flung places, and if there's shortage of gas or they've got to try to spread it around, they're likely going to go where they're going to - either get the best price or going to get, you know, where there's the most people. And where is the cheapest to get the gas to so, it's definitely a weakness in the distribution system especially to independent companies. But I think even the Shells and the Chevrons of the world are facing similar decisions.

So, Asheville definitely struggled a - you know, you have to wonder if they were able to charge a higher price if the gas would have gotten there so - and that's something you get from drivers too when, you know, they basically, they're at the pumps saying, you know, at this point, I'll pay for the gas, you know and of course other people see differently and price gouging is a serious matter but just definitely two - two trains of thought there.

CONAN: Bill, have you had to wait in line to buy gas?

BILL: Yes, actually I have. But a very interesting thing happened to me, my brother-in-law knows a fellow who is a gas station manager, and he told him the thing to do would be, go to the gas station when the gas station isn't actually open. As long as you have a station that uses the credit card reader, if you can get to one and the pumps are powered up, you could get gasoline and that's how I managed to get gas last week. I have to come into work fairly early in the morning, so I came through and there was a gas station, that station was closed but the pumps were running. So I just pulled up, took the bag off of the pump, put in my ATM card and I managed to fill my tank right up. Now even though they said, we have no gasoline, I managed to get 12 gallons.

CONAN: All right. Bill, thanks very much for the call.

BILL: All right. Goodbye.

CONAN: And good luck. Now let's see if we can go down to Tom and Tom is with us on the line from Atlanta.

TOM (Caller): Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

TOM: Good. Well, a lot of people are sent to bike around here and use mass transit which I guess is good. But it's kind of just one more example of how the government and how a lot of private enterprises are just reactionary to a lot of problems that happen and they're not thinking forward in terms of solving these problems.

CONAN: Well, he's got a point there, Patrick Jonsson. It does suggest that this gasoline delivery system is pretty fragile.

Mr. JONSSON: Right. And I think he - you know something else too, Governor Sonny Perdue has been criticized here in Georgia for not being on top of this and you know, you heard a lot of government officials saying well there's enough gas, kind of blaming people for topping up and saying you know, kind of panic buying was behind it, but, the fact is, you know, people are - were rightfully, indignant and angry about it in some ways because there did seem to be a real, a real breakdown in the system. This was an event that was - seems like it could have been predicted and perhaps if not prevented at least, ameliorated a little bit. So, I think it's a you know, government officials like Sonny Perdue, who by the way went to Europe this week, which is another thing that made people mad, I think, because it showed - perhaps a lack of understanding or a lack of the understanding of the pain at the pump.

CONAN: Yeah, but you had the same - by the way, Tom, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. But you had the same kind of complaints about lack of foresight when the drought was such a big issue, and of course there's been a lot of rain last spring. So I assume that's less of an issue now, but this idea that people are not looking forward and anticipating infrastructure problems, like the inability to deliver gasoline, and the inability to stockpile enough water.

Mr. JONSSON: Well, yeah. In fact I'm writing about that right now but you see people - I think it's frustrating to people, and it's kind of amazing to see, you know, and some of the callers talked about it, how you kind of have to get ingenious and really, your behavior changes. I mean, there's been people kind of like groupies chasing tanker trucks coming to the town to see what stations they're going to go to and people...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONSSON: And you know...

CONAN: We talk about ambulance chasers, tanker chasers.

Mr. JONSSON: Yeah, exactly. And I played delta(ph) hockey and that was, you know, we had a game last night, that was all the talk in the locker room about how, God, schemes guys had to find a gas station and get enough, you know, some people go late at night or go early in the morning and which strategy is the best and yeah, it's pretty interesting.

CONAN: Patrick Jonsson, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. JONSSON: All right, Neal.

CONAN: Patrick Jonsson, Atlanta Bureau Chief for the Christian Science Monitor. Speaking with us from his office in Atlanta. Here's one last email from Walter in Nashville. We had a similar problem last week here in Nashville, as Atlanta is experiencing now at this point. There is much more gas available than last week. Still several stations are completely out, most of those with gas seem to have regular only, midgrade and premium are quite scarce. Anyway, thanks to you all for your calls and your emails on that. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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