They were few lines at Washington area gasoline stations yesterday after a weekend of long lines and panicked buying by motorists. But local officials and oil company executives said that supplies will likely grow tighter as the month wears on.
So far, officials here are not planning gas rationing like the odd-even plan in effect in California, but they say there can be trouble ahead unless Washington-area drivers can curb their pattern of "topping off" tanks.
"The amount of [gasoline] storage driving around on four wheels is bigger than the total storage capacity of refineries, terminals and pipelines," said a Sunoco officer. "The thing that causes havoc is you get 20 cars in a line and 10 of them only want a dollar's worth."
While supplies have tightened, prices have soared. The District of Columbia division of the Automobile Association of America reported yesterday that regular gasoline at self-serve pumps in the Washington area costs an average of 77.6 cents a gallon-up 18 percent since the beginning of the year.
Full serve regular costs 81.6 cents here, the AAA reported. That's a 13 percent increase since the beginning of the year-nearly 40 percent on an annual basis.
"Gas prices in D.C. have risen about 20 cents a gallon across the board since Memorial Day 1976," said the AAA REPORT. ' . . . ALMOST (HALF) THAT INCREASE HAS OCCURRED IN THE FIRST 4 1/2 MONTHS OF THIS YEAR."
ALTHOUGH THE GAS SEEMED TO HAVE SUBSIDED YESTERDAY, OFFICIALS SAID THERE COULD BE MORE OF THE SAME NEXT WEEKEND AND ON THE MAY 26-28 MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND, WHICH TRADITIONALLY KICKS OFF THE HEAVY SPRING-SUMMER DRIVING SEASON.
"IF EVERYBODY WOULD JUST DRIVE 15 MILES LESS A WEEK IT WOULD MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE. WE WOULDN'T HAVE THIS PROBLEM." SAID EXXON SPOKESMAN WILLIAM F. ROBINSON, "IT WOULD SAVE THAT MUCH FUEL."
"IF PEOPLE WOULD BE PRUDENT IN THEIR DRIVING, CAR POOL, CONSOLIDATE THEIR TRIPS, STICK TO THE SPEED LIMIT, THERE SHOULD BE NO PROBLEM." SAID NORMAN MCTAGUE, OPERATIONS OFFICER FOR VIRGINIA'S ENERGY OFFICE."
DISTRICT ENERGY CHIEF CHUCK CLINTON SAID HIS OFFICE'S MAIN CONCERN WAS "A PATTERN OF GAS STATIONS SHUTTING DOWN" YESTERDAY AFTERNOON AFTER HAVING BEEN OPEN IN THE MORNING. HE SAID THIS WAS BECAUSE MANY STATIONS CLOSED AFTER SELLING THEIR DAILY ALLOCATION IN ORDER TO MAKE SUPPLIES STRETCH THROUGH THE MONTH.
MANY STATIONS IN NORTHERN VIRGINIA AND SUBURBAN MARYLAND ALSO SOLD GASOLINE FOR ONLY A FEW HOURS YESTERDAY. OTHERS WERE CLOSED ALL DAY, AND A FEW POSTED LIMITS ON THE AMOUNT OF GAS THAT A CUSTOMER COULD BUY.
LAST WEEKEND WAS THE AREA'S FIRST WEEKEND OF LONG LINES AND PANICKED GASOLINE BUYING SINCE THE ARAB OIL EMBARGO FIVE YEARS AGO. IT CAME IN THE WAKE OF MORE THAN A WEEK OF TURBULENCE AT CALIFORNIA GAS STATIONS WHERE MOTORISTS LINED UP, AND SOME FOUGHT, OVER SHORT SUPPLIES.
"I THINK WE'VE JUST OVERREACTED TO WHAT HAPPENED IN CALIFORNIA," SAID GLENN LASHLEY, PUBLIC RELATIONS DIRECTOR FOR THE D.C. division of the AAA. "We were one of the worst cities during the Arab oil embargo."
Although there were lines in some other cities this weekend, the problem appeared to be more intense in this area than anywhere else except California. Lashley joined several oil company executives in speculating that this may have happened because "people here probably keep better informed on the news. . . . I think they see it coming (sooner)."
Several factors, all enormously complex, are at work in the Washington area now. According to officials and company officers, this is the situation now:
The actual shortage in supplies for the area's roughly 1.500 service stations is somewhere between 5 and 15 percent less gasoline than they had to sell during the month of May a tear ago.
The shortages experienced by individual stations can vary tremendously because their suppliers-mostly major oil companies-have differing amounts to provide, because business at the stations has changed in volume, or because the U.S. Department of Enerby has changed the rules, which it now does almost monthly.
In April, for example, DOE decided that stations where business has grown more than 35 percent during the last year should receive increased quantities under the national allocation system.
In May, the figure was changed to 10 percent. Such changes mean the oil companies are constantly juggling their supplies, and company officers are seldom sure at a given moment which of their stations qualify for how much gasoline under the complex DOE fules.
Station owners and dealers, for the most part, have responded to all this by increasing prices to the maximum allowed under federal law and curtailing their hours of operation. Most Washington area stations were closed Sunday, for example.
By curtailing hours, dealers can stretch supplies through the month. If they simply closed for the last few days or weeks of the month, they would lose the lucrative business that they do in their repair bays.
The curtailments of hours also mean dealers cut costs by laying off help. Whether or not this, plus higher profit margins, compensates for lower volume depends on the circumstances of the individual dealerships.
Besides the 5 to 15 percent curtailments in supplies, consumer demand has grown 3 to 5 percent since last year. In all, then, the total shortage of gasoline that must somehow be absorbed by conservation is 8 to 20 percent for a individual driver.
The problem nationwide began with the Iranian revoluation and oil shutoff last fall-a time when American motorists were driving more than ever, perhaps because of good weather, but for reasons that no one is sure of.
Partial Iranian oil production has resumed, but there is still a small worldwide shortage of crude production and the oil companies entered this spring with stocks drastically drained of both gasoline and home heating oil.
Now the companies have been asked by DOE to build stocks of home heating oil for next winter, which they are doing. This limits the quantity of gasoline they can produce, since the same refineries produce both.
At the same time, the companies are building stocks of gasoline. They aren't distributing all the gasoline they do produce, because to do so now would mean much more drastic shortages of gasoline this summer.
Also contributing to this article were Washington Post Staff writers Jack Eisen, Tom Grubisich, Robert Meyers and Donald P. Baker .