Full service has been restored to the pipelines that bring gasoline to the Washington area, which industry officials said yesterday is helping to relieve some stations' shortages.
Motorists also got some relief as prices stabilized after climbing steadily in the past week.
The Colonial and Plantation pipelines, which carry gasoline, jet fuel and other oil products from the Gulf Coast to the Washington area, have gradually restored service after operating at decreased capacities since Hurricane Katrina cut power supplies.
Some companies that deliver gasoline to stations in the region said they were able to obtain larger amounts yesterday because more fuel was flowing into pipeline terminals and arriving by sea. They said demand also has eased since late last week.
"Today is dramatically better than it was on Friday," said Lock Wills, whose La Plata-based company supplies about 180 service stations in the Washington-Baltimore area.
Shell allowed Wills to obtain much more gasoline than he could last week, easing some supply problems. On Friday, 36 stations served by the Wills Group, which operates Southern Maryland Oil Co., had run out of one or more grades of gasoline, Wills said. Yesterday, he said, virtually none of the Shell, Texaco, Citgo and Exxon stations he serves had run out.
Some stations in the area remained without gasoline and some suppliers continued to have trouble obtaining gas. A number of major oil companies are limiting the amount they will sell to firms that deliver it to stations. But as more supplies come in, some companies are allowing distributors to buy more gasoline.
Tight supply and heavy demand has elevated prices in the Washington area and nationally. Prices eased nationally between Saturday and yesterday, falling about a penny and a half to about $3.04 for a gallon of regular, according to a survey sponsored by AAA.
Analysts said that barring any additional hurricanes or major refinery malfunctions, they doubted that gasoline prices would move higher nationally. However, they said prices could fluctuate regionally depending on local supply and demand.
U.S. benchmark crude oil for October delivery dropped $1.61 on the New York Mercantile Exchange to close at $65.96 a barrel. The wholesale price of gasoline also eased slightly. Traders said that reflected anticipation of increased imports of oil and gasoline into the United States as a result of a decision last week by the 26-nation International Energy Agency to release oil and gasoline from members' emergency reserves.
As the Gulf Coast begins to recover from Katrina, oil companies are slowly repairing damage to production. They were also starting up some of the out-of-service refineries that turn crude oil into gasoline.
In addition, oil company officials said tankers are on the way to the United States carrying gasoline and other oil products, which will help to boost supply.
"It's still going to take a few more days before these ripples created in the supply chain by Hurricane Katrina are going to smooth out," said Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP PLC. "The bottom line is, it's still going to be several days before all these wrinkles get worked out in the system."
But with major refineries still unable to operate, some industry officials said they are unsure how long it will take before supplies in the Washington area return to normal. Neither oil companies nor the companies that operate the pipelines leading to the area will say whether deliveries via the pipelines have returned to pre-hurricane levels.
"It's good news that the pipeline is back up," said Peter Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors' Association, which represents companies that supply service stations in Maryland, the District and part of Delaware. "The problem is: What is going into it? There is still a lot of production offline in the Gulf Coast."
The largest refinery offline in the Gulf Coast region is Chevron's facility in Pascagoula, Miss., which can process 325,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Water broke through a levee protecting the plant, damaging equipment and flooding areas critical to production. Chevron said in a statement last night that it expects the levee to be repaired this week but that it would take days to fully assess the damage.
"They haven't determined when we'll be back to normal yet," said Janice Gillis, an operator at the refinery, "but we're trying to do all we can."
Staff writer Amy Joyce in Pascagoula, Miss., contributed to this report.