Washington area motorists yesterday braced for the likelihood that gasoline prices will creep back up after Hurricane Rita hits the Gulf Coast today.
Gas station owners said no signs appeared yesterday of any shortage of supplies or long lines of motorists waiting to fill up. AAA-Mid-Atlantic said the region's average price for regular gasoline fell a penny to $2.85 a gallon yesterday.
Many analysts predicted that gas prices are sure to rise in the coming days because some refineries and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico have shut down in anticipation of the storm. The extent of the price increases will depend on how much damage Rita inflicts on the region and how long it takes to get supplies back to normal again.
"We're going to see $3 a gallon gas quite commonly in the next week or so," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. "I'm not sure how long those numbers are going to stick around," he said. If Rita's impact is similar to Katrina's, higher prices are likely to last for weeks, not months, he said.
Kloza said he was skeptical of other analysts' predictions of gas reaching $4 and $5 a gallon. "One thing we learned after Katrina is the public doesn't have that type of appetite for prices above $4 a gallon," he said, noting that demand started to drop as people changed their habits.
"Everybody is keeping their fingers crossed," said Paul Fiore, director of government affairs for the WMDA Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, which represents more than 1,500 gas station owners. "We saw what happened with Katrina and certainly the potential is there for some problems. If things go well weatherwise and there's not a lot of damage, the impact will be minimal."
Many stations in Texas and Louisiana ran out of gas yesterday because so many people evacuated the area at once, prompting a run on local supplies. AAA said it did not see any evidence of gas shortages elsewhere in the country. Washington area gas prices remain above the national average of $2.75 a gallon. In the District, regular yesterday was $2.97 on average. In Maryland the average was $2.86 and in Virginia it was $2.73.
AAA-Mid Atlantic urged motorists to conserve gasoline and travel only when necessary. "We have heard stories that people want to top off their tanks, not because they are afraid of a gas shortage, but because they're afraid the price is going to go up next week," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA. "We are telling motorists to avoid topping off."
Two major pipelines that provide much of the region's supply of gasoline were operating yesterday, according to the Association of Oil Pipelines, although one -- Colonial Pipeline Co. -- had limited operations. Colonial, which transports 2.3 million barrels a day of refined product from Houston to New York, said yesterday that Hurricane Rita has limited the amount the pipeline can carry because some of the oil refineries that provide supplies have shut down. The company yesterday said it would have periodic shutdowns from the main lines originating in Houston.
Plantation Pipe Line Co., which transports nearly 600,000 barrels a day from Baton Rouge, La., to Washington, said the pipeline should not be affected unless the storm turns significantly to the east, according to the oil pipeline association.
One major pipeline, run by Explorer Pipeline Co., is shut down. It usually provides diesel fuel and other products to Oklahoma and the southern plains, Kloza said. "Diesel prices in the Midwest could be impacted," he said. But he said he was cautious about predictions of record high gas prices for the rest of the region lasting for months after the storm "if people cut back a little bit more" when prices rise.
A fuel supplier fills up an evacuee's car as others wait on Interstate 45 just north of Houston. Thousands were stuck beside the road fleeing Rita.