Gas pains

Asheville and environs are no longer seeing the hour-plus-long gas lines and severe shortages that forced colleges and municipal offices to close their doors recently. Gov. Mike Easley‘s office announced Oct. 2 that the pipelines and refineries sending fuel to the area were once again operating at normal capacity, though it would be another week before that gas would reach consumers. In the meantime, thanks to an arrangement with the major oil companies announced Sept. 24, 50 to 100 additional tanker trucks a day were bringing fuel to Charlotte and Western North Carolina from areas less hard-hit by the shortage.

Putting their heads together: Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey (left), Deputy Fire Marshal Mack Salley and Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy are all involved in planning for future gas shortages. Ramsey and Bellamy have criticized the state’s delayed response to the crunch. Photo By Jonathan Welch

Nonetheless, the whole episode spotlighted the region’s exceptional vulnerability to disruptions in Gulf Coast fuel production. Local officials have criticized state government’s response as tardy and the fuel-distribution system as badly managed.

Meanwhile, city and county officials are also looking ahead, holding meetings to consider the lessons to be learned from the predicament and identify ways to make things work more smoothly in the event of future shortages.

“Over the next three weeks, we’re going to be putting a comprehensive plan together,” says Buncombe County Deputy Fire Marshal Mack Salley. “There are three areas we really need to address: how to keep emergency services running, ways to help the public, and making sure we communicate with the dealers [distribution companies such as Biltmore Oil and Asheville Oil, which supply much of the area’s gasoline] to be cognizant of what their issues are,” says Salley, who’s heading up the county’s efforts to deal with the situation.

But in some ways, government’s power is limited. In releases throughout the shortage, Gov. Easley stressed that the major oil companies had voluntarily cooperated by sending more fuel to the area—and that short of an extreme state of emergency, state government has no power to compel them.

And Asheville Fire Chief Greg Grayson, the city’s point person on the issue, notes: “We can try to get people to conserve and encourage stations to only sell set amounts. But at the end of the day, when it comes to fuel distribution, local government just doesn’t have that big of a role.”

Getting a jump on trouble

At the municipal and county level, the plan that’s taking shape calls for reacting more quickly to potential trouble in the Gulf of Mexico, so mountain residents can be advised about what to do and local governments can start stockpiling fuel.

“If we see a hurricane heading toward the Gulf, we know that there may be some problems,” Salley explains. “There are steps we can take to inform people and to start conserving the fuel we use, too. That way, Emergency Services will still be ready to roll and have enough saved up to last through a fuel disruption.”

The plan, notes Grayson, will also address ways to help local institutions such as UNCA, A-B Tech and Mission Hospitals through a crisis. Meanwhile, the city has also updated its own contingency plans.

“We’re on version three of our fuel-conservation plan now,” says Grayson. “Fortunately we put the first one in place in 2005. It’s really been paying off for us: We’ve got 15 to 20 days of fuel saved up. I think we understand what our services need, and we understand how to keep them supplied.”

One contributing factor in the severe shortages experienced here recently was the fuel-distribution system, which gives major oil companies first dibs on whatever is available during a shortage while leaving independent distributors to make do with less. Historically, Asheville’s geographic isolation in the mountains has led to heavier reliance on such independents than some other urban areas.

“Ninety-eight percent of the time, that system works well, but then there’s a shortage like this,” notes Salley. “Some of that’s an economic decision the dealers are going to have to make. There are alternatives with the pipeline [contracts] that cost more but probably have more stability. But we’ll be talking with the dealers at the first sign of trouble and do whatever we can do.”

When it comes to private companies, however, “There’s not much we can do in the way of compulsory action,” Salley admits. “The exception would be [declaring] a state of emergency, but that usually makes panic a lot worse—and panic fueling is what we’re trying to get people not to do.”

One thing the city and county can do, notes Grayson, is do a better job of keeping the public informed. “If we start early encouraging people to conserve, promoting carpooling, ride sharing; if we keep the information coming quickly about who has fuel and who doesn’t, that will help. It helps us deal with the situation better, too, to poll the stations and know what they’ve got on hand, what they’ve got coming in.”

Improved communication could help with gas stations too, Salley emphasizes. “We’ll encourage them to limit the amount they sell to each customer, to try and make sure everyone can fill up, to try and stop panic pumping.”

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey said the recent crunch illuminated how problems with the fuel supply can impact the entire county.

“We had a lot of good planning tools when it came to the core—to the services we provide,” notes Ramsey. “But the situation really puts us in a bind. We’re a rural county: When people can’t get to work, they can’t pay their mortgages; they can’t buy food. What happens to the economy then? What happens when health workers can’t make it in?”

The contingency plan, says Ramsey, will involve “carpooling and ride lots, and cooperating with Asheville Transit to make sure people can get to work—especially if they work in vital areas [such as health].”

But given the limits of local government’s power, he notes, better coordination with the state will still be essential, as will improved communication with companies like the Alpharetta, Ga.-based Colonial Pipeline, which typically provides most of the fuel for this area.

“A lot of the information about what happened with the refineries, where the supplies are going, that’s in private hands—and next time, we need to know about that more quickly,” he emphasizes. “The information-sharing process [on the part of the state and the oil-distribution system] was pretty terrible.”

Ramsey also points to the substantial time lag before state government got involved. “We notified the state of our concerns on Sept. 11, when the shortages began, [but] the response time was not where it should be.” It wasn’t until Sept. 25 that Gov. Easley announced that he’d persuaded the major oil companies to send additional tanker trucks to the mountains to ease the crunch.

Meanwhile, back in Raleigh …

Raleigh’s reaction to the shortage has also drawn fire from other local officials. During the crisis, Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy blasted what she saw as their tardy reaction, saying that “it’s just disappointing in a day and time like this to see that we all have to bond together to make sure Raleigh knows we exist.”

Likewise, state Rep. Charles Thomas was not happy about the situation, though his ire is also directed at the major oil companies. He said on Sept. 24 that they were “begging us to regulate them” and promised to investigate the way the distribution system is run.
(Thomas did not respond to calls for comment on this story.)

But Seth Effron, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, noted that Easley signed an executive order on Sept. 12 that took weight limits off trucks to allow supplies to travel more rapidly—and asserted that Easley had been communicating with local leaders and fuel companies throughout the gas crunch.
“We’d learned from the experience of 2005 and the shortages caused by Hurricane Katrina,” Effron told Xpress. “A lot of this is in the hands of the pipelines, but the governor was communicating with the oil companies [and] with communities to see what they needed, and using his power of persuasion to get it.”

Effron defended the communication efforts and said Easley had reacted quickly.
“He worked to keep the lines of communication open with any affected areas of the state,” he asserted. “We were sharing information with everyone.”
When asked about the gap of time between when local officials aired their concerns and additional tankers arriving in WNC, Effron added, “We were in regular communication with them [the companies] throughout the crisis. It does take some time to get those supplies going elsewhere, but the governor was communicating with them every day.”

And lessons for the future? “Well, we learn some lessons every time something like this happens—we learned from 2005,” Effron emphasized, but he declined to offer specifics. “Again, a lot of this is in the pipeline’s hands. There’s just not a lot that can be done about how quickly they get the fuel out.”

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