A Sept. 6 Business article incorrectly said that the price of gasoline across the nation had exceeded the previous inflation-adjusted high of about $3.11 a gallon set in 1981. The inflation-adjusted high was breached only in some parts of the country. (Published 9/7/2005)
Drivers in the Washington area yesterday dug deep into their wallets to fill their tanks and occasionally found stations that had run out of gasoline.
Station managers reported that holiday demand was much lighter than on Friday, when motorists flocked to pumps after false rumors that stations in Maryland and Virginia would close early. Some drivers said they were trying to conserve and were topping off their tanks, fearing shortages or higher prices.
Prices yesterday around the region typically ranged between $3 and $4 a gallon as gas supplies were tight and major U.S. refineries that convert crude oil into gasoline remained offline. According to the most recent AAA-sponsored survey, a gallon of regular in the Washington area averaged about $3.23 by early Saturday. That was up from about $2.89 on Friday morning.
Both local and national gas prices were above the previous inflation-adjusted high of about $3.11 a gallon set in 1981.
"It's horrific," said Cindy Hunt, 38, of Northwest Washington, as she put $10 worth of gas -- just under three gallons -- into her car at a Shell station on Georgia Avenue NW. "This is crazy. How long is it going to keep going up?"
She said she cut back on driving recently because of rising prices, forgoing trips to visit family members in Fort Washington and trips to buy groceries.
Other drivers said they had grown numb to higher prices.
Mark Ferguson, 46, of Vienna, pulled into a Mobil station in Tysons Corner to fill his minivan after returning from 10 days at the beach in New Jersey. He said higher prices did not surprise him given that Hurricane Katrina disrupted oil operations on the Gulf Coast.
"It's not that unexpected," Ferguson said after pumping $51.04 worth of regular. "I've kind of gotten settled to it."
Prices have been pushed higher because of Hurricane Katrina, which last week reduced Gulf of Mexico crude oil production. The storm also damaged or idled eight refineries on the Gulf Coast that turn crude oil into gasoline. Three refineries were in the process of restarting.
U.S. refinery capacity was about 11 percent below the normal 17 million barrels of oil that could be processed a day before the storm. Even before Katrina, refineries were operating near capacity to meet demand.
Oil companies with operations in the Gulf have been scrambling to assess damage and make repairs. Chevron Corp., for example, has found that some underwater pipelines that carry oil and natural gas from offshore platforms to shore have shifted and been damaged.
"They're in areas that they weren't in before," said Tab Guidry, a Chevron official in Port Fourchon, La. "The currents moved them, some as far away as a half-mile or a mile away from where they were."
Oil analysts said drivers topping off their tanks and hoarding gas were exacerbating the shortages and rising prices. Shell Oil Co. even issued a statement encouraging drivers to refrain from topping off, saying it increases lines at stations and wastes fuel.
Some customers arrived at gas stations with portable containers, worried that gasoline supplies could soon dry up. At a BP station on Georgia Avenue, just south of the Maryland-District border, a nervous customer filled a giant barrel with gasoline, at a cost of about $275, said station owner Shahzad Aslam.
Aslam ran out of regular gasoline on Friday but has since received a shipment. White plastic bags were draped over the mid-grade pumps, whose storage tanks had run dry. The station is receiving allocations of gasoline below normal levels because of heavy demand and tight supply. Aslam said he hopes to have enough regular to meet demand until his next shipment.
"If they do not panic, if they take what they normally need, I should have enough," Aslam said of his customers.
But drivers were reluctant to allow their tanks to run too low.
Brant Jenkins, 47, of Richmond, who traveled to Northern Virginia for the weekend to spend time with his girlfriend, topped off the half-full tank of his blue Range Rover. Jenkins said that the sport-utility vehicle needs premium gasoline and that he had passed some stations that were out. So when he spotted a BP station in Tysons Corner with premium in stock, he pumped 11.8 gallons, at a cost of $43.80.
"I don't want to be going to some of these places that will possibly be out of gas," Jenkins said. "I want to make sure I have something in my tank."
Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report from Port Fourchon, La.