Chart, Daily Gasoline Guide
While metropolitan areas of Maryland have endured a severe gasoline drought in recent weeks, energy officials have channeled millions of gallons of the state's emergency gas supplies to middlemen claiming to serve farm and business users in rural quarters.
Moreover, state officials cannot assure that the generally undocumented, self-certified claims of the middlemen are accurate or that the gasoline they parcel out for "hardship" cases in rural Maryland ever reaches its intended destination.
"Sure, I'm getting hustled," conceded Martin I. Caplan, the state's energy resources administrator, who controls the emergency supply. "Sure there's hoarding. All I can do as one man is to keep the hoarding and the hustling to a minimum."
In June, nearly half of the 4.6 million gallons of the state's emergency reserve was awarded to the middlemen who transport fuel from oil company terminals to their customers in southern and western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, according to state records.
During the same period, just 1.4 million gallons of gasoline was alloted by state officials to service stations in the hard-pressed Washington and Baltimore areas, where long lines and early closings have become a ritual of daily life for motorists.
The middlemen, called a jobber, obtains the scarce fuel simply by applying for a portion of the state's emergency stocks. The jobber states that he intends to supply users considered by the federal government to be of "high priority" - farmers, contractors, bus and cab companies and municipalities.
Applicants rarely amplify their requests with the names of "high priority" customers or offer proof of their need. Instead, they usually ask for a specific amount of gasoline and justify their request in general terms, such as "to serve farmers and crabbers."
The gasoline comes from a special reserve set aside for the state each month by the oil companies serving Maryland.Federal law allows states to require suppliers to keep up to 5 percent of each month's statewide allocation in reserve for this purpose.
The so-called "state setaside," which exists in every state, was designed to give governors the power to earmark gasoline to "high priority" users in need of additional supplies and service stations in geographic area of severe shortages.
June Kopald, Virginia's fuel allocations officer, said her office refuses to consider applications from jobbers because of the difficulty in determining whether gasoline reaches the inteneded user. She only assigns gasoline to businessmen and farmers who apply for themselves.
"If we consider a jobber application," she explained, "we could duplicate (allocations) to the detriment of others.What's to keep 10 jobbers from applying to serve the same farmer and what happens if the farmer then gets his gas from the pump?"
There also is a geographic argument made against awards of emergency supplies to jobbers. Since jobbers generally serve rural areas, energy officials say, giving them "setaside" gasoline means supplementing areas where the fuel is not as scarce as in urban communities.
"The state (Maryland) is putting it out to areas not in short supply," said a senior U.S. energy official. "They should be using this stuff in the cities and give it out to station after station that is willing to stay open."
Just a third of Maryland's emergency reserve for June went to service stations in the metropolitan areas, records show, with that third - 1.4 million gallons - being released in the last week of the month as the shortage reached a crisis level.
A much larger portion - 2 million gallons - was doled out to jobbers, who said they would redistribute the fuel to farmers for their tractors, watermen for their boats, municipalities or their official cars and contractors, retailers and food distributors for their trucks.
"I've got to keep construction going," said Maryland's Caplan. "Without construction, you don't have jobs. In rural areas, the small construction companies build bridges and roads, I've got to keep agriculture going, too. Without it, you don't have food.
"They're a lot more important than goddam gas line. My obligation is to the economy of the state."
Caplan conceded that he has no evidence that the gasoline handed out to the jobbers even reaches the farmers and contruction companies. All he can do, he said, is rely on "the good faith" of the middlemen to deal honestly with him.
"In every business," said Caplan, "you've got to trust somebody at some time."
Occasionally, middlemen seeking a portion of the emergency reserve list the name of each customer who would receive gasoline and the exact amount he would get. Even then, Caplan said, there is no assurance that the list is factual.
It is possible, Caplan acknowledged, that the farmer and construction companies listed by a jobber actually fill their trucks and equipment at the service station pump. "Then, who winds up with the product?" asked Caplan. "Your guess is as good as mine."
Most of the jobber applications are not so specific. For instance, an Eastern Shore middleman who received 10,000 gallons of emergency gasoline explained he needed the fuel because "spring and summer weather has been better, users have been able to work more, have some new customers."
If he accepted applications from individual consumers instead of the jobbers, said Caplan, "I'd have to use the Washington Redskin stadium to fit 'em in. Then I'd need every Washington Post reporter to help me investigate each one."