The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Logistical quirks leave disproportionate share of D.C. gas stations dry

Fuel storage tanks connected to the Colonial Pipeline system in an industrial area of the Port of Baltimore in Maryland. (Samuel Corum/Bloomberg News)

Gas is again flowing through the Colonial Pipeline from Texas, but lingering logistical quirks are still working their way through the distribution system, leaving an outsize share of District stations with no fuel or spotty supplies.

Local officials and industry representatives struggled to pinpoint exactly why the roughly 100 stations in the nation’s capital were so severely affected. Midday user-reported data from the app GasBuddy showed that two-thirds of the District’s stations were dry, a far larger share than in Maryland and Virginia.

Some experts had predicted that disruptions would last through this week, at a minimum, after the pipeline restarted Wednesday. The cyberattack that shut down the key southeastern artery underscored vulnerabilities in U.S. infrastructure. Emergency officials and station owners said panic buying was a key driver of the supply problems.

District officials said the message they’ve gotten from Colonial is that it will take several days for the supply chain to get back to normal.

“We continue to urge residents to drive for essential trips only, use public transportation — including the free DC Circulator when possible — and schedule errands close together,” Christopher Rodriguez, director of D.C.'s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said in a statement. “Residents can check gas supply by visiting”

Colonial said its entire pipeline system has restarted, but some places may continue to experience “intermittent service interruptions during this start-up period.” AAA said average national gas prices are up eight cents over the past week, to $3.04, the highest in six years.

The fits and starts could be seen at filling stations such as a BP near a bookstore and pharmacy on Connecticut Avenue NW, where gas tankers were arriving but not delivering full loads of fuel, making another temporary shutdown likely.

“It’s about math. You can only put so many trucks on the road,” said Kirk McCauley, director of member and government relations at the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association. He estimated that it would take 10 days to two weeks to get all filling stations running after the restart Wednesday.

There is an intricate hierarchy of suppliers, corporate contracts and preexisting bottlenecks that are all probably coming into play with the resumption of gasoline flow, experts said. Precisely why those factors appear to have hit the District harder than its neighbors isn’t clear.

“I wish I knew. … It’s kind of a strange thing,” McCauley said. The shortages were less significant in Maryland, where 26 percent of stations had no gas, and in Virginia, with 30 percent, according to GasBuddy. But the broader dynamics and potential problem areas are clearer, he said.

Fear of scarcity prompts hunt for gas

The fuel is offloaded at distribution hubs, including a major terminal in Baltimore. Some suppliers may have big commitments to buy large amounts of fuel, giving them priority that helps certain groups of stations. Meanwhile, non-branded suppliers or others might have to wait in line longer, McCauley said.

A shortage of truck drivers — spurred by a pandemic-era drop-off in gas consumption and tougher standards for hazardous-material haulers — is making getting back to normal that much slower, he said. And a typical trucker can haul maybe only five loads a day, despite hundreds of gas-hungry stations.

“You can only supply so quick once everyone’s down like that,” McCauley said. “By the time you get to the 200th station, the first one’s out of gas again. That’s why it’s going to take two weeks to get it done.”

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the council’s committee on transportation and the environment, said she has no indication that there’s anything untoward going on.

“In the District we’re always a little bit sensitive to the fact we might not be treated equally,” Cheh said. But things are getting better.

“The gasoline is flowing,” she said. “In a matter of time, not too long, we’ll all have gas.”