NEW YORK (Reuters) - Drivers and homeowners scrambled to secure fuel for their cars and generators in the U.S. Northeast on Wednesday as storm-hit gasoline stations started to run dry.
More than half of all gasoline service stations in the New York City area and New Jersey were shut because of depleted fuel supplies and power outages, frustrating attempts to restore normal life, industry officials said.
Reports of long lines, dark stations and empty tanks circulated across the region, with some station owners unable to pump fuel due to a lack of power. Others quickly ran their tanks dry because of intensified demand and logistical problems in delivering fresh supplies.
The lack of working gasoline stations is likely to compound travel problems in the region, with the New York City subway system down until at least Thursday and overland rail and bus services severely disrupted.
Homeowners running back-up generators during the power cuts may also run short of fuel.
“I don’t have any lights and need this gasoline for my generator,” said Abdul Rahim Anwar at a Getty service station in Gowanus, Brooklyn, as he put two full jerry cans into his trunk.
Tempers flared as a queue of at least 30 cars spilled down the street, with drivers blaring horns, shouting and getting out of their cars. Pump attendant Nadim Amid said the station had already run out of regular gasoline and only had a tiny amount of super unleaded and diesel left.
One driver, a doctor who asked not to be named, said she had driven from New Jersey, where half of all businesses and homes are still without power. More than 80 percent of filling stations in the state were unable to sell gasoline as of Wednesday morning, said Sal Risalvato, head of the New Jersey Gasoline, Convenience, Automotive Association.
“It’s going to be an ugly few days until we can see both power and supplies restored,” Risalvato said.
Gasoline stations on New York’s Long Island and the city borough of Staten Island also reported shortages, while lengthy lines were seen in the borough of Queens. Commuters may see higher prices at the pumps in the coming days, though oil traders said it will also dampen demand for fuel and increase stockpiles in the region.
A source at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it has received a request from a state hit by the storm to waive a clean gasoline requirement to help ease increase supplies.
Kevin Beyer, president of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association in Smithtown, New York, estimated that less than half of all stations were able to sell fuel Wednesday morning.
“I have gas in the ground but no power. For many others they’re facing the opposite problem, with power but no gasoline. For the few stations that are lucky enough to have both they’ve got huge lines out front,” Beyer said.
“With the kind of demand they’re seeing they’re likely to run out of gasoline within the next 24 hours.”
Beyer estimated it could take until the end of next week to get all fuel stations operating again.
New York State and New Jersey fuel retailers sell a combined average of 26 million gallons (620,000 barrels) of gasoline a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The problem is not a severe shortage of gasoline in the Northeast, but widespread power outages and the storm-related logistical problems of getting the fuel from refineries and terminals to those who need it.
Jenn Hibbs, an account director at marketing firm Marden-Kane Inc in Garden City, Long Island, said there was only one gasoline station open within 10 miles of her house. Friends were sharing tips on Facebook about where they could get fuel, but two lines for gas leading to the service station were both over half a mile long.
“It’s making people think about whether they can get to work, whether they have enough gas in the tank to get there and back,” Hibbs said.
A line of cars at a gas station on Route 1 and 9 South in Linden, New Jersey, at one point stretched at least two miles.
On the New York Mercantile Exchange, oil traders bid up benchmark gasoline future contracts for November delivery, which expire on Wednesday, by as much as 20 cents a gallon during the trading session, before they fell back to settle just 3 cents higher at $2.76. Contracts for delivery in December were up by less than 3 cents a gallon.
In Connecticut, the Gasoline & Automotive Service Dealers Of America said around 15 percent of gasoline stations were shut and warned drivers could see higher prices in the coming days.
“Whatever the market closes at today, we’ll see those prices at the pumps tomorrow,” said spokesman Mike Fox.
Four of the region’s six oil refineries were back to full production or increasing run rates on Wednesday. The second-largest - the Bayway plant in New Jersey - was still idle after flooding damage that traders fear could delay its return to full service. Key import terminals were also shut.
“Most of the problems are at the service station level with power and transportation to the stations,” said Ralph Bombardiere, head of the New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops.
Gasoline inventories in the Mid-Atlantic region were 16 percent below last year’s level before the storm, but were enough to cover almost 23 days of total demand.
Power is slowly being restored. The Department of Energy said on Wednesday afternoon that 51 percent of homes and businesses in New Jersey were still without power. That was down from around 65 percent on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Robert Gibbons, Matthew Robinson, Janet McGurty and Edward McAllister; Editing by Claudia Parsons, Grant McCool and Dan Grebler