Washington area motorists' panic to buy gasoline eased yesterday, even as supplies were tight, prices remained high and some stations ran out of regular.
Gas station managers said some drivers were continuing to top off their tanks and fill portable containers because of concerns about shortages and rising prices. But the long lines that formed Friday after bogus rumors that Maryland and Virginia gas stations would shut down did not materialize.
"Demand today is not like yesterday," said Saeed Khan, manager of a Lowest Price gas station in Hyattsville. "Very few customers are coming because yesterday everybody filled gas in their tank."
Gasoline supplies to the Washington area and many other parts of the country continue to be below normal because Hurricane Katrina disrupted oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and halted operations at a number of refineries that produce gasoline from crude oil.
One of the two major pipelines that bring gas from the Gulf Coast to the Washington area returned to normal operations yesterday, while a second pipeline was operating below capacity because of power outages. U.S. refining capacity remained 11 percent below the normal 17 million barrels of oil that can be processed a day, crippling domestic gasoline production.
The impact could be seen around the area as some stations ran dry.
Early yesterday afternoon, the driver of a Chevy Suburban sucked the last five gallons of regular gasoline out of the storage tanks at a Texaco on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington. Station owner Robbie Guenther said that he was supposed to get a delivery today but that his supplier told him it would come Tuesday or Wednesday.
"It's not a good feeling," Guenther said. "As an owner, you hate to see somebody who pulls in and wants to give you business turn around and drive away. This is something that's beyond our control."
Before the station ran out of regular, Guenther said, a number of customers had been filling gas cans as well as their vehicles' tanks. But he said that type of panic buying had subsided since Friday.
Prices across the area appeared to edge higher, which station managers said was a result of higher prices charged by suppliers. The average price for a gallon of regular in the Washington area was about $2.89 Friday morning, according to a survey sponsored by the auto club AAA.
At Guenther's Texaco station Friday, the price of a gallon of regular was $3.13. He raised it yesterday to $3.25. When he discovered his gasoline shipment would be delayed, Guenther increased the price again to $3.55 in an attempt to recoup anticipated losses from not being able to sell regular for several days.
On Friday, consumers complained to Virginia officials about a Centreville Shell station that was charging $5.80 a gallon. State officials were investigating whether that price violated anti-gouging laws that were triggered in an emergency order by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) late last week. Prosecutors could bring a civil suit if they conclude gouging occurred.
A cashier at the station said owner Steve Hauer was not available, and he could not be located for comment. Anne Peebles, a spokeswoman for Shell, said Hauer set the unusually high price because he thought he was going to run out of gas over the weekend and was looking for a way to recoup revenue that would be lost.
"I don't think he did this maliciously," Peebles said. "He was not trying to take advantage of anyone."
In other parts of Virginia, the prices at about 300 gas stations will make some motorists do a double take. Many of the pumps will offer prices of more than $1.50. But upon closer inspection, drivers will notice signs indicating that the price is per half-gallon.
Warner relaxed state regulations last week to allow stations to sell gas by the half-gallon for up to 60 days after some stations complained that their antiquated pumps could not display prices higher than $2.99 per gallon.
Until Warner's executive order, those stations feared that they would have to stop selling gas after prices hit $3, said Michael J. O'Connor, the president of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.