Deliveries of gasoline to some Washington-area service stations are beginning to drop as a result of the Iranian cutoff of oil. Although no customers are being turned away from the pumps, operators of some stations predict this may happen soon if the cutbacks by suppliers continue.
In addition, gasoline prices are creeping steadily upward in the area as a result of the Iranian cutoff and a 14-percent price increase announced last year by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The key to whether there may be a gasoline shortage will be what happens in the next few weeks.
Local gasoline station operators say the cold weather has kept demand low and prevented their running out of gasoline to sell. If spring comes with its customary increased demand for gasoline and if the curtailments are still in effect, the operators say there may be problems.
Oil company executives said the full impact of the Iranian cutoff is only beginning to be felt in the United States. Tankers take 40 to 60 days to travel here from the Persian Gulf, they said, and the last tankers loaded in Iran in December are arriving just now in American ports. Iran has exported no oil in the past six weeks.
"we're still a pretty long way from a crisis," said Frank W. Bradley, a Chevron vice president who is based in Washington. "But in terms of a darn tight situation we seem to be getting there very fast.... If Iran stays down long enough, or any other country or oil terminal has a problem, it could become real serious."
Increased output in Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries has partly offset the loss of Iranian oil, but a serious shortage remains.
Last fall, Iran supplied about 900,000 barrels of oil daily to the United States. The net loss because of increased output elsewhere now is about 500,000 barrels daily.
Local officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia say gasoline and home heating oil supplies are tightening but remain sufficient. They say that any foreseeable shortages can be managed without major disruptions unless people panic and begin to hoard.
"We hope to assure people they don't have to panic," said Donald E. Milsten of the Maryland Energy Policy Office. "The management of any energy crisis is in the public's hands. If they will conserve and be rational... that's the key to it."
At the same time, local officials are scrambling to promote conservation with fresh vigor. Virginia police are enforcing the 55-mph speed limit more stringently. Officials are dusting off emergency plans for weekend and evening gas station shutdowns, emergency allocations of fuel and even for gasoline rationing.
The local officials say they are waiting to follow the federal lead. Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger has said that gasoline sales on Sundays may be banned if Iran does not begin exporting by April 1.
The U.S. Department of Energy will send its standby rationing plan and standby mandatory conservation plans to Congress Feb. 26, officials say.
The Iranian cutoff has forced major fuel suppliers to curtail deliveries not only locally but throughout the nation.
Many major oil companies have announced cutbacks of 8 to 15 percent in deliveries of crude oil to refineries because of the cutoff from Iran.
The Iranian cutoff has lowered world oil production by 6 million barrels a day -- one-tenth of total production and nearly twice the output withheld by Arab producers at the height of the 1973-74 embargo.
About half this amount has been supplied by increased production elsewhere in the world.
Texaco, Chevron (Standard Oil of California), Shell and other companies have started restricting deliveries to wholesalers and retailers.
In most cases these cutbacks mean stations will receive the same amount of gas they bought a year ago with no allowance for market growth.Throughout the country retail gas sales in January averaged about 3 percent higher than last year.
There is no way to estimate how many of the hundreds of gas stations in the Washington area are currently affected by the cutbacks
Officials say that such curtailments in the Washington area have not yet resulted in serious shortages or gas station closings.
But to station owners who have been hit by such curtailments, the near future loks bleak.
"Personally, I think it's just going to be pure hell come April," said Donald E. Crump, who runs four northern Virginia Texaco stations. Crump said he will "squeak through" February with barely enough gas. After that, he said, "I'm definitely in trouble [if curtailments continue]."
Lewis Haskell, who has Sunoco stations in Arlington and Fairfax, said that if the curtailments continue, "We're probably going to be back with the lines, the curtailed hours [and] substantially higher prices. It's just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg is just coming out of the water."
Monitoring of 14 area gas stations by The Washington Post shows that prices have risen by 1 to 5 cents per gallon in all but one of them since the beginning of this year. Most of these increases were in the last two weeks.
"I'm afraid to answer the phone any more for fear it's the [Amoco supplier] calling to say gas is up," said Woody Cole, who runs an Amoco station in Silver Hill. "... Our company has gone up 12 times in less than a year."
Gasoline is allocated to such dealers under a complex federal control system that went into effect after the 1973 Arab oil embargo produced supply shortages and long lines for gasoline at service stations.
An analysis of the problems at Donald Crump's four nothern Virginia Texaco stations provides clues to what may be happening in the Washington area.
Crump's newest station, a gas-and-go high volume station in Annandale, is now pumping more than 60,000 gallons a month. But its authorized federal allocation level -- what it can receive from the supplier -- is only 41,000 gallons a month.
Allocation levels like this are based on what stations sold in 1972 -- before the crisis. The levels are adjusted over the years with federal approval, and operators can appeal for increased allocations on hardship grounds.
A low allocation was no problem in recent months and years since the oil companies had plenty of excess gasoline to sell to station operators on top of allocated amounts.
What is happening now, however, is that companies hit hard by the Iranian cutoff are cutting deliveries down to the allocated amounts.
Texaco -- Crump's supplier -- curtailed to the allocated level on Feb. 1, according to Crump.
"When you hit that allocation point you are cut off. They won't give you one gallon more," Crump said. "You can sit there and beg and cry and you won't get it."
Crump's other stations also have routinely sold all or more than their allocated levels. Two Springfield stations with allocation levels of 81,000 gallons each sell more than 100,000 gallons monthly. A Fairfax City station with a 60,000-gallon allocation level sells just about that amount.
What has saved Crump this month, he says, is the snow and cold -- people aren't driving as much -- and a rule that allows him to switch some gas allocations from one station to another.
"We might ease through February, but it's going to be close," Crump said. Come March and April, however, he expects to have to curtail his hours of opening or raise prices to decrease sales -- if the curtailments continue.
James Gouldin, who owns two Exxon dealerships in Washington, said he is having no supply problems.
But Gouldin, who has been in the business 27 years here, said he knows of dealers who "are going to run out before the end of the month unless they reduce their hours or do something to run the customers away."
He said one dealer friend of his was allocated 47,000 gallons for all of February and as of Saturday had sold 23,000 of them.
None of the station operators -- whether they suffered from curtailments or not -- have yet noticed any public hoarding or panic.
"I've had a couple [of customers] say they're going to keep their gas tanks full," said Haskell, the Sunoco dealer. He recalled that a general desire to drive around with full gas tanks added to the 1973-74 crisis.
"I remember one woman in 1973 who waited in line and when she pulled in all she needed was 66 cents worth," Haskell said. "If people had used better judgement than that, the line would have been half the size."
Checks with several suppliers of home heating oil disclosed no shortages.