Service stations still waiting for gas
BY LYNN J. COOK
Houston area gas stations struggled to reopen this afternoon, and shortages reached around the state, with sold-out station in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas.
Irfan Ibrahim, who owns 25 Shell-branded gas stations scattered around Sugar Land and the west side of Houston, said he has no idea when his stores will be restocked.
His first problem: no gasoline. But Ibrahim said he is in constant contact with Shell to get tankers to replenish fuel.
The second problem: no electricity. Without power, the station's pumps don't work. That means even if gasoline reaches the station, consumers can't fill up.
"We're trying to reopen, but at this point I have no idea when," he said.
Around 5:30 p.m. Saturday, the Shell stations on the south side of Highway 59 at Weslayan and Kirby both had gasoline — and extremely long lines.
Earlier in the day, dozens of cars started to snake toward the Weslayan station, following a tanker that was sent to replenish underground gas tanks.
Six police cars quickly pulled in, taking control of traffic, as drivers out scouting for gasoline swerved into the station and jockeyed for position at the pumps.
Chevron insists that it has plenty of gas to refuel its 480 Chevron and Texaco branded stations across a 15-county area.
The only challenge is getting it there, said Chevron spokesman Mickey Driver.
Tankers loaded with gasoline started pulling away from Chevron's Galena Park Marketing Terminal around noon Saturday, but Driver warned mounting traffic jams on evacuation routes will hamper how fast stations can get restocked.
"We prioritized evacuation routes. People don't need to panic. There's enough gasoline," Driver said.
But it will take wave after wave of tankers to restore fuel at corner stores across the Houston area.
It requires three 10,000-gallon tanker loads just to fill up the typical gas station, according to Chevron.
Most of them hold 20,000 gallons of regular unleaded and 10,000 gallons of premium — or about 1,500 fill-ups.
Driver says the law limits how many hours a truck operator can safely be on the road, and the company is worried the supply trucks will idle away that critical time in traffic as evacuees pour back into town.
So Chevron is asking the National Guard and police and sheriff's departments for escorts to help expedite the process and keep tankers safe from testy drivers while they off-load at stations. There is still no word whether they will get that help from officials because those departments are already stretched to the limit.
Phone calls placed to convenience stores and service stations in the Houston metropolitan area and suburbs along major evacuation routes - including Katy and Huntsville - went largely unanswered today.
In Huntsville, a major refueling point along Interstate 45, The Hitchin'post Express had reopened, but the store had no gasoline or diesel to sell.
When the station attendant was asked if she knew what time new fuel was expected to arrive, she said, ''No ma'am, we have no idea. We've been waiting on it for two days already.''
Station refueled but still closed
Chevron station manager Peter Sarda would love to start filling tanks.
His station has electricity, air conditioning and even a tanker ready to deliver.
But the gasoline outlet on the outbound lanes of Highway 290 just south of Jersey Village can't reopen because several abandoned cars — possibly gasless — are blocking the spot where tankers unload fuel.
A big white Lincoln with a decidedly flat tire is just one of the cars blocks some gas pumps.
Sarda's other problem is employees — he can't find some of them. Others refuse to come in.
"Thursday was too hard. I can't do this by myself," he said, adding that dozens of motorists and people on bikes have stopped by to check if he's open.
If Sarda can get the cars moved, he plans to reopen Sunday morning at 6 a.m.
Many Houston residents trying to get home aren't willing to wait for assurance gas is available. The flashing Department of Transportation signs alongside the eastbound lanes of Interstate 10 this afternoon read "Major Delay to Houston No Fuel.''
But still the cars and SUVs kept coming, and this time, there was gas to be had between San Antonio and Salado, the first leg on the long road back to Houston.
Every roadside station on either side of I-10 on the first 30 miles past downtown San Antonio had fuel, although some were still receiving shipments at midafternoon Saturday.
"It's been real hectic, man,'' said Jesse Perez, who has driven gas tankers five years for a San Antonio company, as he fed a portion of his 9,500-gallon load into pumps at a station at the East Houston Street exit. "Some are mad when they see us, but some are glad. I've been going since midnight, and I'm about to take a few hours off and start again.''
Other motorists weren't taking chances. Robert Rodriguez of San Antonio helped family members fill their two SUVs for the ride back to Houston and was filling five two-gallon plastic canisters for them to taking along in reserve.
A few miles away at the Ackerman Road exit, clerk Ellen Balderas said motorists had been lined up at the station since 6 a.m., and the crush didn't break until midafternoon. Still, she said, the work had its rewards.
"I've never been appreciated by more people in one day,'' said Balderas, who has worked at the station for 11 years.
After gassing up his SUV, Matthew Ware of Katy said he would never look at an open gas station the same way again.
"I'll probably start filling up when I get below three-quarters from now on,'' he said.
Police trying to coordinate
In Conroe, where many Gulf Coast residents will be driving through on their way back from Dallas and higher ground to the north, four gas stations should be reopening with fuel around 6 p.m. this evening.
The Sam's Club and Shell stations on I-45, and nearby HEB and Exxon stations are scheduled to get gasoline shipments this afternoon. But the Conroe Police Dept. has asked them to not open until 6 p.m.
Police spokesman Bob Berry said it's an effort to put officers on the scene in a coordinated manner to keep lines orderly, prevent cars from jumping ahead of one another and stop any fights that might break out.
"We had some fighting and incidents on the way out and we want this to flow as smooth as possible," he said.
"We haven't told anybody they can't open, but we want to be available to help control it. We don't want people injured over the supply of gas."
Revamping the supply chain
Exxon Mobil and Shell were trying to move tanker trucks that carry fuel from around the country to help fill the gasoline gap across southeast Texas. Both companies said they are working with their stations and authorities along I-45, I-10 and Highway 290 to refuel stations along evacuation routes.
Motiva's North Houston terminal has power and has re-opened. Four tanker trucks pre-loaded with gasoline before the storm were dispatched for Houston distribution and are expected to continue re-loading.
Exxon kept the spigots open at its North Houston gasoline storage facility before and after the storm to keep police and fire departments functioning. The company has actually started donating the fuel to first responders as it did in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
In preparation for the storm, Chevron stockpiled 30 generators for stores in case they lost power. Without electricity, gas pumps can't work.
Companies that run major gasoline and diesel storage hubs continued to assess damage this afternoon. Some of the tank farms where gasoline tankers load up have yet to reopen since the storm.
Kinder Morgan, which stores million of gallons of gasoline in Pasadena and Galena Park, was one of those. Spokesman Rick Rainey said damage looks minor so far, but he could not yet pinpoint an exact time when those facilities would be up and running and refueling tankers again.
According to Harry Quarls, of the energy practice in the Dallas office of Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm, Dallas was having short shortages of gas. But he says that's normal in this kind of situation.
"The real question is how fast these refineries can get back up to speed," he said.
"If you draw down all the terminals to get product to gas stations then the issue becomes how to replenish those terminals."
Nationwide, the U.S. has about 22 days worth of gasoline in storage stashed around the country. But Quarls says only 10 to 11 days of supply is realistically available to the Gulf Coast.
Refiners operating along Houston's Ship Channel and in the Texas City area appeared to have dodged a bullet when Hurricane Rita turned east. But refineries in Port Arthur and Beaumont were right in the storm's path.
Companies including Motiva, Exxon Mobil, Total and Citgo were evaluating damage to those massive metal mazes on Saturday afternoon.
Shell Oil, which runs the Motiva plant in Port Arthur with Saudi Aramco, announced its 285,000 barrel per day refinery had sustained some wind damage from the hurricane.
"While no flooding is apparent, the refinery has sustained wind damage including downed power lines and cooling water-tower damage," the company said in a press release.
Shell has offered no start-up date for refinery operations.
Valero, one of the nation's biggest refining companies, said Saturday it could take two weeks to a month to restart its Port Arthur plant, which can process 250,000 barrels of crude per day.
"Our recovery team for Port Arthur ... reports that we have significant damage to two cooling towers and a flare stack but it does not appear that we have significant damage from flooding," said company spokeswoman Mary Rose Brown.
Tom Kloza, chief analyst of the Oil Price Information Service, said Friday that the one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita could spell higher prices for the entire country — and wider spread shortages — if more than 500,000 barrels of Texas refining capacity is knocked out for a substantial amount of time.
Some 880,000 barrels of capacity remained shut down in Louisiana from damage sustained by Hurricane Katrina.
"Demand [for gasoline] did drop after Katrina," Kloza said. "The public shifted and showed there's no too much tolerance for gasoline prices above $3. But diesel demand is remarkable consistent.
"It's the fuel that farmers use to harvest and people use to move things across the country with rigs and rail. It's what makes our economy chug along."