ROCKINGHAM — Local residents are feeling the effects of a fuel shortage caused by a break in the Alabama section of a pipeline that runs from Houston to New Jersey, and officials say Colonial Pipeline is working around to clock to make repairs — but it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Gov. Pat McCrory is asking agencies in North Carolina to consider ways to conserve fuel in light of the leak, which has spilled at least 252,000 gallons of gas since it ruptured.
A statement from McCrory’s office on Monday said the governor has activated the State Emergency Response Team to coordinate with counties regarding fuel needs. The governor warns motorists to be wary of price gouging, and is asking state agencies to consider ways to limit fuel use, including curtailing non-essential travel for state employees.
Charles Knight of Hamlet said early Monday that several gas stations were already out of fuel, and he was concerned about price gouging he has already noticed.
“Convenience Corner and the station across from Convenience Corner are out,” Knight said. “They said it was because of a cut (pipeline) but it’s probably just another ploy for them to raise the gas prices up. The last time there was a shortage years ago, I worked at a gas station, and it just wasn’t a real shortage. We made it a shortage. My wife works at Moore County in the hospital, so I’ve got some extra gas put in cans so that just in case she can’t get any, she can still get to work.”
Knight added that the fear of running out of gas has caused some people to over-react.
“I know some people that’s left work (to fill their tanks), ‘cause you know, when somebody hollers, ‘We’re out of gas,’ people panic,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as the last one. Shouldn’t be, but who knows?”
John Garner, owner of Convenience Corner, conducted a gasoline audit Monday morning and was keeping a close eye on the developing situation.
“We ran out of gas (Monday) at about 12:15 p.m. We could tell by the increased volume from people that we’ve never seen, or don’t usually see, in our area of the market,” he said. “They were here buying, and trying to fill up cans and additional vehicles.”
Garner said some fueling stations take advantage of these rare events by raising their gas prices higher than necessary.
“You have to be careful, because these are the same people that you want to do business with after this situation has passed us and things have gotten back to normal,” he explained. “And people tend not to forget.”
Attorney General Roy Cooper on Monday urged North Carolina consumers to report gas prices that seem unreasonably high. Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley says investigators are checking reports of gas being sold at $5.89 per gallon and another offered at more than $4 per gallon.
“Some people want to talk about supply and demand,” Garner continued. “That might be great if it’s going to be long-term or if it’s going to be a critical situation — but this is a renewable resource, the production of gas and oil and oil products. You know it’s not going to continue seasonally. It’s going to be briefly, at best, because of the enormity of the business. I think anybody that’s reasonable can manage a little blip in their daily business rather than taking the risk of injuring their business by doing something that’s very unpopular in the future for them.”
In North Carolina it is illegal to overly inflate prices for critical goods and services during an emergency or abnormal market disruption. Violators can be fined up to $5,000.
Garner added that some gas is still reaching parts of the state, but no one can be certain how distribution will take place.
“Possibly tonight after six o’clock, they’re going to have some trucks in Greensboro and we’ll see how much they’re going to cut loose tonight,” he said. “There’s a possibility we might be able to share a load with somebody, or get a whole load. We just don’t know, it all depends.”
Garner added that as long as some gas is still getting to distributors and customers, the situation is not yet “critical.”
“Keith Hardee at Quality Oil (and Gas) Company told me that if we keep going at the rate we’re going, and the way we’re going right now, it will be critical by this weekend,” he said, advising drivers to “be conservative. Don’t make any unnecessary trips, think about what you’ve got to do, plan your daily activities accordingly with the horizon being this weekend if it’s going to be critical.”
“Critical,” he said, means no more shipments of gas coming into the area, and no way for people to fill their tanks.
Alpharetta, Georgia-based Colonial has acknowledged that between 252,000 gallons (954,000 liters) and 336,000 gallons (1,272,000 liters) of gasoline leaked from a pipeline near Helena, Alabama, since the spill was first detected Sept. 9. It’s unclear when the spill actually began.
According to a preliminary report, it wasn’t possible to immediately pinpoint the leak, partly because highly flammable benzene and gasoline vapors hung in the air and prevented firefighters, company officials and anyone else from being near the site for more than three days.
State workers discovered the leak when they noticed a strong gasoline odor and sheen on a man-made retention pond, along with dead vegetation nearby, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in the report.
The report does not identify the cause of the leak. The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is investigating the leak in a section of the pipeline constructed in 1963, it said.
Richmond County Emergency Services Director Donna Wright said her agency is monitoring the situation.
“The first thing that needs to happen is for everyone not to panic,” she said. “Use common sense strategies to conserve fuel, such as canceling unnecessary travel and make one trip near places instead of several individual trips out. My department has been speaking with each of the gas stations to see where we are with local supplies. Distribution companies are receiving gas from their distributors, but not full quantities as normal.”
Anson County Emergency Services Director Rodney Diggs told the Daily Journal Monday conditions there are similar to those in Richmond County.
“There are some stations that are currently out of fuel,” he said. “Others are only allowing smaller purchases per customers, but fuel is still coming into the county for the stations. We continue to monitor the supplies in our county.”
Richmond County Manager Rick Sago said that the sheriff’s office has imposed restrictions on non-essential driving.
“And we have told people to make sure and turn their (county) vehicles off and not to drive unless necessary,” Sago said. “Quality Oil has a deal with us where they keep emergency fuel that can be used to continue operations.”
Sago suggested that every resident can help mitigate the effects of the shortage by applying common sense.
“Everybody goes out and starts filling up everything they’ve got, and that creates more of a shortage,” he said. “People need to try and limit their driving. We don’t know when the fuel supply will be back to normal.”
Hamlet City Manager Marcus Abernethy, in an email to the Daily Journal, outlined the city’s strategy for fuel conservation during the shortage.
“The rising cost of gasoline may have an effect on the city’s budget just like the average consumer,” he explained. “We will be working closely with appropriate agencies if this continues, and if prices are either significantly elevated or if fuel suppliers experience shortages.”
Abernethy said Hamlet, unlike the state, does not have large numbers of employees traveling long distances for non-essential travel.
“We occasionally send an employee for training and education to complete a necessary certification,” he said. “Almost all of our fuel consumption is used in order to provide essential operations and services to residents. All essential vehicles have been topped off and we have secured enough to operate through early next week.”
In light of that, he said he will continue to monitor the event through its progression.
“As long as the price of gasoline is temporarily elevated and the issue is alleviated within the next few weeks, city operations will not be affected,” he said. “If the issue continues, we may have to make adjustments to operations, but services will not be altered without appropriate notice to residents.”
Gene McLaurin of Quality Oil and Gas of Rockingham said that while the situation appears grim, it is important for residents to stay focused on what they can do until things return to normal.
“Don’t do any unnecessary travel,” he advised. “Everybody just be calm, and don’t panic. We are going to have some shortages in the next two weeks, but that will pass when the pipeline is working again.”
McLaurin said his company receives product from several locations.
“But we’ve been put on allocations because of problems due to the pipeline situation. The distributors — like Quality Oil — can only buy so much,” he said. “We supply about 15 convenience stores in Richmond County. We were able to keep them supplied through the weekend, when other places were already seeing the shortages. In the next couple of weeks, we are going to have more shortages. I again would tell people, ‘Don’t panic, don’t travel if you can avoid it,’ and things will go back to normal soon.”
In agreement with statements from officials of counties, cities and towns in the area, McLaurin said that people going out and filling up during a time like this does more harm than good.
“People panic and go out and fill their tanks, but it only makes it worse,” he continued. “We’re not able to get enough to the terminals right now to meet the demands. I assured the city and county governments that we have a supply we have kept for emergency personnel and law enforcement. We’re keeping enough in inventory to keep them going in the event a critical shortage occurs.”
Richmond County Schools and state education officials are also watching the situation carefully.
“Our transportation director had a conversation with the (N.C.) Department of Public Instruction today,” said Superintendent Dr. Cindy Goodman. “Richmond County Schools received a shipment of diesel fuel late last week that will be used over the next 10 to 12 days. Right now, we’re confident that our supplies are sufficient. At this point, it’s business as usual. But we will continue to monitor the situation.”
Colonial Pipeline said over the weekend that it was beginning construction of a temporary pipeline that will bypass a leaking section of its main gasoline pipeline in Shelby County, Alabama. In a statement Monday evening it said it expects the temporary pipeline to be running by the end of the week with no specific day given.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.