Gas shortages ease up in Southeast

ATLANTA -- The Southeast heads into the weekend facing less severe gas shortages than a week ago, although the Energy Department expects scarce supplies to linger for a week or two.

Atlanta and Charlotte, the metropolitan areas most affected by fuel shortages caused by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, have seen improvement — more so here than in Charlotte.

Gas lines here were shorter and less common Thursday than last week. All 111 QuikTrip stations in metropolitan Atlanta had gas Thursday — up from just 25%-50% a week ago, company spokesman Mike Thornbrugh says.

"We're not going to be running out of gas, not even spot shortages," he says. "There may be some stations that are running short on premium only. That will be corrected by the weekend. We are at the point now where we're not just playing catch-up. We think that … (now) we're going to have the luxury of building inventory."

There is less panic buying, and the likelihood of Gov. Sonny Perdue closing schools or taking other drastic action is receding, says Bert Brantley, his press secretary. "Today we're seeing a much higher percentage of stations with gas. You're not seeing the lines," he says. "People are becoming a little more confident that the next time they need gas, it'll be there."

Not so in Charlotte. The situation there is "marginally better, but we're not out of the woods yet," says AAA Carolinas spokesman Tom Crosby. "We've seen slight improvement but not enough."

Crosby says that about one-fourth of stations have at least one grade of gas. He says stations still have no stored inventory and are using everything as they get it. "Until we get to … where they can hold fuel in the ground, which would give us some flexibility, we're going to continue to have shortages."

The most acute shortages are in the Charlotte area and in North Carolina's mountains. Both regions have a high percentage of independently-owned stations, which buy their fuel on the open market instead of contracting with gas suppliers as major oil companies do. "We no longer have super-long lines," Crosby says, however.

Judy Brown, 55, a retired medical secretary in Salisbury, N.C., says "it's still bad. It's a nightmare here." Her car uses premium, and she shops by phone to find stations that have the higher grade.

The Southeast receives almost all of its gasoline from the oil-refining region of the Gulf Coast. Gustav and Ike forced a 3-to-4 week shutdown of refineries. Stations quickly ran out as panic buying hit.

The Energy Department helped ease the shortage by delivering 4.8 million barrels of oil to five storm-damaged refineries, says spokeswoman Healy Baumgardner. All but one of 15 refineries shut down during the storms have resumed production, and the main pipeline bringing gas into the region is operating at normal capacity. "As refineries get back to full production and restoration efforts progress in the Gulf region, the market will balance," she says. "This will likely take another week or two."

Drivers in Nashville, which also has shortages, are finding gas more readily, says Marylee Booth, executive director of the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association.