Motorists gearing up to hit the road for the Labor Day weekend are already confronting gasoline shortages, closed stations and prices rising daily across the nation, and relief is expected to come slowly.
After meeting with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, President Bush said Hurricane Katrina had severely disrupted U.S. energy supplies and asked consumers to conserve fuel in the coming days. "Americans should be prudent in their use of energy during the course of the next few weeks," he said. "Don't buy gas if you don't need it."
Some oil companies, including Chevron Corp., have begun rationing the amount of gas they sell to suppliers.
Several stations in the Washington area ran dry yesterday, and shortages hit even harder elsewhere. Some local customers said rising prices prompted them to top off their tanks, contributing to the area's diminishing gas supplies.
In West Virginia, stations ran out of gas overnight, only to be saved by a new supply of fuel arriving by truck before the morning rush hour. Customers in the mountains of North Carolina could buy only premium gasoline because regular had sold out. Confused drivers in Georgia saw prices that had climbed as high as $5 a gallon suddenly drop back to $3 in the span of 24 hours.
Kassandra Bremont, comptroller of a group that owns 17 gas stations in Maryland, was trying yesterday to track the whereabouts of a tanker truck that was supposed to deliver gas that morning. As of yesterday afternoon, three of the BP stations her group owns had no gas, and a few more were about to run out. The 30 nozzles at the station in Catonsville were covered in plastic. Bremont kept a cell phone in hand and occasionally checked BP's internal Web site for updates.
"We're trying to decide whether to close down the station," which operates from 6 a.m. to midnight on a normal day, Bremont said. "If we don't get gas soon, there's no point in paying someone $8 an hour to do nothing but talk to customers" or sell the occasional cigarette pack from the station's mini-mart.
Consumers angered over soaring gas prices made 5,800 calls yesterday to the Energy Department's price-gouging hotline. Motorists' ire was evident in an AP-Ipsos poll released yesterday showing that Americans want Bush and Congress to make the high fuel prices a top domestic priority. The gas crunch is rippling through the economy and raising policy issues for the White House. Some airlines, already struggling to survive, are facing ever-higher jet fuel costs.
Gas prices in the Washington area varied yesterday from as low as $1.08 in rural Maryland to $3.50 in some parts of Bethesda. The average price of gas for the Washington area rose 5 cents, to $2.73, yesterday from $2.68 on Wednesday.
"The jump was only a nickel, strangely enough," said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "But when you drive around, you see a totally different story. The prices are changing so rapidly it's almost hard to keep up with it."
Two major pipelines disrupted by Hurricane Katrina that provide much of the Washington area's gasoline showed signs of life yesterday, although it could be days before they are running up to full capacity. Colonial Pipeline Co. said that it was operating at 40 percent of capacity and that it hoped to operate at 61 percent by today and 86 percent by the middle of next week. Officials with the other pipeline, Plantation Pipe Line Co., said the line is operating at 25 percent.
Floodwaters and mandatory evacuation orders have prevented some oil firms from assessing damage to their refineries, and other logistical problems have limited their ability to inspect offshore oil platforms.
But oil analysts and company officials said they expected an increase in imports of gasoline from Europe within two weeks. That could help to bring down prices and ease supply disruptions, they said.
Before the hurricane, U.S. refiners could turn 17 million barrels of oil a day into gasoline and other products. The storm has reduced that capacity by 1.8 million barrels a day, or nearly 11 percent, according to the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group. Some other refineries, which were not damaged by the storm, are operating below capacity because of limited crude oil supplies.
Eight U.S. refineries that turn crude oil into gasoline were offline because of storm damage, the Energy Department said yesterday. Two other refineries that produce petrochemicals were out of service.
Oil companies are struggling to produce and deliver gasoline to stations. "It's an issue of getting fuel to the right place at the right time," said Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP PLC. "There has been this rippling effect from the storm. It's going to take a while for these ripples to flatten out."
Some refiners have been scrambling to get crude oil because of disruptions to production in the Gulf of Mexico. Output has slid by some 90 percent in the Gulf, amounting to a loss of about 1.4 million barrels a day, according to the Minerals Management Service.
The Energy Department yesterday approved three loans of crude oil from the 700 million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The department agreed to provide 6 million barrels of oil to Exxon Mobil Corp., 1 million barrels to Placid Refining Co. and 1.5 million barrels to Valero Energy Corp. Also yesterday, the Bush administration relaxed federal rules to allow foreign oil tankers to transport oil from one U.S. port to another. Industry officials said that would help move supplies to areas that need them.
The Bush administration has also relaxed environmental regulations requiring some areas to use special summertime gasoline blends designed to reduce pollution. Oil industry officials said relaxing that rule allowed supplies to be sent to Atlanta yesterday, relieving rapidly rising prices.
In Alexandria, Ali Rana, the gas station manager at Olde Town Car Care Shell, said he could run out of gas by the end of the month. He was informed by his supplier that he would receive enough to sell only 1,700 gallons per day, and he usually sells about 2,200. "If we're out of gas, we cannot get any more," he said, adding that he plans to "hope and pray and see what happens."
Cars were lined up three-deep at all 10 pumps at a BP station on Route 28 in Centreville yesterday, and cashier Singh Darshan said the station had to shut down twice since Wednesday night because gas shipments were late. Regular customers said that the station tended to be crowded because the prices are usually relatively low -- $2.81, $2.91 and $2.99 yesterday -- but that they never see lines.
The station closed all its pumps from 11:30 p.m. Wednesday until 2 a.m. yesterday and then half of its pumps for two hours yesterday afternoon. In both cases, the supply trucks were late.
Darshan said gas prices had not changed between Wednesday and Thursday but had gone up 20 cents between Monday and Tuesday and 7 cents between Tuesday and Wednesday.
At the Shell station on Georgia Avenue and Upsher Street NW, customer Charlene Evans said she was surprised by what she found: A handwritten note on every pump indicated that the station was out of regular and super grades, leaving only the most expensive premium grade. But Evans said she was able to fill up with the midgrade super for $2.89 a gallon. Other customers reported being able to fill up their cars with regular gasoline, as well.
The franchise's manager, Redi Hassan, explained that there had been problems with "air pockets" in the regular and super grades and that he believed that only premium gasoline -- which by the end of the day was selling at $3.25 a gallon -- would be guaranteed.
At the Leesburg Amoco BP, Mary Ellen Huffman had gotten calls three times the previous day from the manager, each time with the same message: Raise the prices. Yesterday afternoon, the green and yellow sign outside the store read regular for $3.14 a gallon, up from $2.43 the previous morning, and that spike had made customers "real angry," said Huffman, an assistant manager.
"They say they're going to have to ride bicycles," she said, nodding her head as she stood behind the store counter. "My advice? Get it now."
Harry Chang put up the "Sold Out" signs at his Chesterbrook Excel station on Old Dominion Drive in McLean, but not because of a break in the supply chain from the hurricane. Chang, an independent dealer, ran out of gas Tuesday morning. He said that he could still buy gas to sell but that he didn't want to buy it at the post-Katrina prices. He said the lowest distributor price he knew about was $2.97, and when he added on federal and state taxes plus credit card fees and a 3-cent profit, he estimated that he would have to charge $3.47 a gallon.
That would make Chesterbrook Excel one of the most expensive gas stations in the area. Chang said his station prides itself on being usually one of the cheapest. If he charged $3.47, "nobody would come," said Jose Rivera, who works at the station.
"Selling at a high price would ruin my reputation," said Chang. "I'll wait until it goes down. People say I'm crazy."
Staff writers Karin Brulliard, Kirsten Downey, Lila de Tantillo, Michelle Boorstein, Dina ElBoghdady, Jonathan Abel, Michael Rosenwald, Elissa Silverman and Ann Marchand of washingtonpost.com contributed to this report.