The Toll at the Pump

Gas Supplies Tight; Bush Asks Drivers to Conserve

By Sara Kehaulani Goo and Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 2, 2005

Motorists gearing up to hit the road for the Labor Day weekend are already confronting gasoline shortages, closed stations and prices rising daily across the nation, and relief is expected to come slowly.

After meeting with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, President Bush said Hurricane Katrina had severely disrupted U.S. energy supplies and asked consumers to conserve fuel in the coming days. "Americans should be prudent in their use of energy during the course of the next few weeks," he said. "Don't buy gas if you don't need it."

Some oil companies, including Chevron Corp., have begun rationing the amount of gas they sell to suppliers.

Several stations in the Washington area ran dry yesterday, and shortages hit even harder elsewhere. Some local customers said rising prices prompted them to top off their tanks, contributing to the area's diminishing gas supplies.

In West Virginia, stations ran out of gas overnight, only to be saved by a new supply of fuel arriving by truck before the morning rush hour. Customers in the mountains of North Carolina could buy only premium gasoline because regular had sold out. Confused drivers in Georgia saw prices that had climbed as high as $5 a gallon suddenly drop back to $3 in the span of 24 hours.

Kassandra Bremont, comptroller of a group that owns 17 gas stations in Maryland, was trying yesterday to track the whereabouts of a tanker truck that was supposed to deliver gas that morning. As of yesterday afternoon, three of the BP stations her group owns had no gas, and a few more were about to run out. The 30 nozzles at the station in Catonsville were covered in plastic. Bremont kept a cell phone in hand and occasionally checked BP's internal Web site for updates.

"We're trying to decide whether to close down the station," which operates from 6 a.m. to midnight on a normal day, Bremont said. "If we don't get gas soon, there's no point in paying someone $8 an hour to do nothing but talk to customers" or sell the occasional cigarette pack from the station's mini-mart.

Consumers angered over soaring gas prices made 5,800 calls yesterday to the Energy Department's price-gouging hotline. Motorists' ire was evident in an AP-Ipsos poll released yesterday showing that Americans want Bush and Congress to make the high fuel prices a top domestic priority. The gas crunch is rippling through the economy and raising policy issues for the White House. Some airlines, already struggling to survive, are facing ever-higher jet fuel costs.

Gas prices in the Washington area varied yesterday from as low as $1.08 in rural Maryland to $3.50 in some parts of Bethesda. The average price of gas for the Washington area rose 5 cents, to $2.73, yesterday from $2.68 on Wednesday.

"The jump was only a nickel, strangely enough," said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "But when you drive around, you see a totally different story. The prices are changing so rapidly it's almost hard to keep up with it."

Two major pipelines disrupted by Hurricane Katrina that provide much of the Washington area's gasoline showed signs of life yesterday, although it could be days before they are running up to full capacity. Colonial Pipeline Co. said that it was operating at 40 percent of capacity and that it hoped to operate at 61 percent by today and 86 percent by the middle of next week. Officials with the other pipeline, Plantation Pipe Line Co., said the line is operating at 25 percent.

Floodwaters and mandatory evacuation orders have prevented some oil firms from assessing damage to their refineries, and other logistical problems have limited their ability to inspect offshore oil platforms.

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