Gas Price Gouging Hits Hurricane States

HOUSTON (AP) - Hurricane Ike may still be in the Gulf of Mexico, but its economic impact has already made landfall, sending wholesale gasoline prices soaring Friday and straining the nation's fuel supply chain.

Wholesale gasoline prices on the Gulf Coast moved even further into uncharted territory to around $4.85 a gallon on fears of vast fuel shortages as the hurricane honed in on the mass of refineries that line the upper Texas coast. The region accounts for about one-fifth of the nation's petroleum refining capacity.

At least eight refineries had shut down or were powering down as Ike prepared to strike.

Gas supply disruptions were being felt outside Texas, where Ike is expected to make landfall in the next 24 hours. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe declared a state of emergency and said he expected temporary increases in gas prices over the next few days as pipelines into the state are shut down.

Gulf Coast wholesale gasoline jumped substantially from Tuesday, when a gallon cost just $3, said Ben Brockwell, director of data, pricing and information services for the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J.

"The path of the storm has put the entire supply chain under stress from the refinery level all the way to the retail station level," Brockwell said. "Hopefully it's a temporary phenomenon, but we won't know until next week."

The spike will almost certainly lead to high pump prices for consumers across broad swaths of the country, as the gasoline makes it way from the wholesale market to retailers.

For now, pump prices are holding fairly steady. The average U.S. retail price for gasoline edged up less than a penny overnight to $3.675 a gallon, according to auto club AAA, the Oil Price Information Service and Wright Express. Meanwhile, October gasoline futures climbed 6.52 cents to $2.8140 a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The Texas Attorney General's Office said Friday it had received about two dozen complaints of price gouging at gasoline stations, but nothing excessive as yet.

"We haven't seen anything egregious, but we're watching," said spokesman Tom Kelley.

On Friday, major refineries shuttered operations in preparation for a storm surge.

Valero Energy Corp., North America's largest refiner, was shutting down three of its six facilities on the Texas coast - those in Port Arthur, Texas City and Houston. But the company said the other three, including two in Corpus Christi, were operating at planned rates.

Spokesman Bill Day said 64 of Valero's 193 company-owned stores in the region were closed because of evacuations. Those that remain open were being supplied with gasoline from refineries in other areas, particularly Corpus Christi. That will continue after Ike passes, Day said.

"As soon as it's safe, we'll get supplies into that area as soon as possible," he said.

Still, there was concern that the refinery shut-ins may last for days.

A North Carolina-based convenience store chain asked customers in most of its 11-state territory to limit gasoline purchases to 10 gallons Friday.

Pete Sodini, CEO of the Sanford-based Pantry convenience store chain, said his company dropped the 10-gallon request in Florida and other areas where stations were supplied by ship. He said supplies inland where stations are supplied from two major pipelines could be a problem as the storm wears on so the request stands in those areas.

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