Gasoline Shortages Become Self-Fulfilling Prophesies
By Chris Haak
Over the past few days, I’ve read of several gasoline shortages in southern US cities that have been the result of rumors of stations running out of fuel. First, on Friday, CNN.com reported that a rumor that Nashville, TN was running out of gas sent motorists rushing to fill their cars with whatever was left. The “run on the bank” (or pump, in this case) resulted in most stations in Nashville actually running out of gas. People who had perhaps a half tank and would have waited until the early part of the next week to fill their tank instead waited in line a few days early to top off, buying the gas that someone else might have ordinarily bought.
Yesterday, Atlanta, GA found itself in a similar predicament. The story was similar, although there was no mention of any rumors that led to the city running short of gasoline supplies. In Atlanta’s case, it’s probably a combination of hearsay (people don’t want to be left with empty tanks if the city does run out of gas, so they top off when they’re down a little, exacerbating the problem) and the restrictions imposed by clean air gasoline blend requirements. The Atlanta metro area has very strict formulation requirements for gasoline, so only a specific formulation may be sold there. That means that even if there were gasoline available for the service stations in Atlanta, if it weren’t the right type, it could not be legally sold there – at least until a clean air waiver was obtained.
There are some supply chain disruptions as a result of Hurricane Ike as well. Refineries in the Gulf Coast and Houston area are not yet up to full capacity following the storm, and the Colonial Pipeline, which normally transports 100 million gallons of gasoline daily, is also not up to full capacity.
The bottom line on this issue is that custom formulations of gasoline for various cities and regions, while they have environmental (air quality) benefits, add to the cost at the pump for consumers, and make for uneven supplies. Having one or two formulations of gasoline acceptable nationwide would make our economy run more smoothly and keep fuel supplies flowing consistently. Meanwhile, simple human courtesy of not topping off a three-quarters-full tank during a temporary supply disruption or shortage would go a long way toward allowing those who truly need the fuel – whether because their tank is empty or because they have a long trip ahead of them – can buy what they need.
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