Streams

Remember Sandy's Long Gas Lines? It Could Happen Again

Monday, February 25, 2013

For 12 days after Sandy slammed into the Mid-Atlantic coast on October 29, Tim Arata sat in the dark at his family-owned gas station in suburban Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, waiting for the lights to come back on.

His West View Service Center seems basic compared with the shiny Exxon and BP stations closer to I-95. It has just three pumps and no convenience store. But tucked into dusty corners and running beneath the blacktop, a network of high-tech electronics works to top off the tanks.

“It's just a big computer,” Arata said.

Walking the property in a navy-blue Gulf T-shirt, Arata points out computerized systems that monitor leaks, mix super and low-octane fuels and measure how many gallons of gas are flowing to the pumps.

The credit card machines and emergency shutoff switches need power too, as do the pneumatic jacks, air ratchets and hydraulic lifts used to inspect and repair cars. 

In fact, without electricity, West View is not even supposed to accept deliveries of gas from tanker trucks to its three 6,000 gallon storage tanks. A state law mandates stations have power during deliveries so an alarm can sound if oil starts to seep into the ground.

Four days after Sandy, Arata skirted this regulation by accepting a partial delivery of 4,500 gallons of regular unleaded. He had run out of gas just before the power kicked off and he wanted to be prepared for when it turned back on.

But the power outage continued, and even though his station had gas, there was nothing Arata could do. While hundreds of cars lined up down the block, he had to turn them away from his station.

“We had no power, so there was no way of pumping the product,” he said.

Sandy siphoned thousands of dollars in profits from his business, yet despite that financial hardship, he said he won’t invest in off-the-grid, back-up power. With a price tag around $40,000, the nearly car-sized generator he would need to run his station and service center is too expensive even with the tax credits and low-interest loan programs some lawmakers have called for through legislation.

Instead of a dose of preventative medicine, Arata said he will take his chances with another hurricane.

“Let’s hope we don’t have another hundred-year storm in the next few months,” he said.

The Debate Over What to Fix

More than three months after Sandy, the question before lawmakers, business owners and the public is whether New York and New Jersey should simply rebuild or build in a such way that protects the region from future storms.

In Washington, it took the House of Representatives 78 days to pass the $50.7 billion Sandy aid package in part because lawmakers were at loggerheads over how much funding to include for infrastructure upgrades and storm mitigation.

Back home, business owners in the region's oil and gas industry are conducting their own cost benefit analyses.

“The question we’re asking ourselves is how much investment do you make for storm hardening projects given that this was a once in an X-thousand year storm?” said David Erfert, refinery manager at the Phillips 66 Bayway Refinery in Linden, New Jersey.

At Bayway, a 16-foot storm surge flooded a third of the two-square-mile property, corroding electrical systems, damaging pumps and compressors and destroying buildings. Power was out for several days, and the refinery was offline for three weeks.

Phillips 66 suffered, and since Bayway is the largest refinery on the East Coast, other businesses that rely on its product suffered as well.

“We supply half of the gasoline the state of New Jersey requires,” said Steve Dietrich, the facility’s production superintendent.

David Erfert said installing back-up power across the entire Bayway Refinery would be nearly impossible.

"The amount of power we use each day could supply a city of around 150,000 people, so it's tough to have back-up power for that much," he said.

Even hardening some of the electrical systems would take tremendous manpower, money and time.

"These type of projects take a number of years,” Erfert said. 

Hydra-Headed Problem Complicates Solution

Several terminals in the metropolitan region that store oil and gasoline were shut down. According to the Energy Department, nine of 57 terminals in Sandy’s path remained closed a week after the storm — all of them in New York and New Jersey.

That includes the so-called "racks," where tanker trucks fill up with gasoline for delivery to stations.  For three days following Sandy, the terminal at the Phillips 66 refinery was shut down, meaning around nine million gallons of gasoline and diesel did not make it into the distribution network. 

New York Harbor was closed for days after Sandy, so oil tankers could not make deliveries to refineries.  The Colonial Pipeline which delivers gasoline from the Gulf Coast was also out of commission in parts of New Jersey due to a power outage.

At the peak of the power outages, only 35 percent of gas stations in the metro area had power, according to AAA.  It’s estimated less than 10 percent of stations overall were equipped with back-up generators.

These problems compounded daily, eventually leading to hours-long gas lines until New Jersey, New York City and Long Island implemented gas rationing based on an even-odd license plate system.

“It was just a snowballing effect,” said Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, C-Store, Automotive Association.

Some Ideas for Solutions, But Little Consensus or Action Yet

So far, there have been no hard-and-fast decisions on how to address this complicated problem.

Lawmakers like Democratic State Senator Barbara Buono of New Jersey and Democratic State Senator David Carlucci of New York have introduced legislation that would require some gas stations to install generator back-up power.  It's a a measure many people in the industry say would not have prevented gas lines.

In "NY Rising," the policy book that accompanied his State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo came closer than anyone to proposing a comprehensive plan to prevent more lines and rationing.

He called for a Strategic Fuel Reserve for New York State and more pump stations along the Buckeye pipeline which was forced offline temporarily after Sandy.

The Governor also said the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority "must conduct an assessment of the need for hardening measures at fuel delivery terminals in the region." 

The assessment, however, has not started, and NYSERDA does not have the authority to enforce infrastructure changes at terminals, according to Kate Muller, a spokesperson for the authority.

More recently, Cuomo took his biggest step yet when he announced an amendment to the state budget calling for back-up power wiring at some stations in evacuation zones. The budget deadline is March 31.

The path forward is less clear in New Jersey.

Governor Chris Christie spent about two-thirds of his State of the State address in January on Sandy, but never mentioned the words “gas,” “gasoline” or “rationing.” The closest he came to touching on November’s weeks-long gas crisis during the speech was stating that Sandy damaged the state’s “infrastructure.”

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority said that New Jersey has no formal plans yet for how to prevent another gas crisis in the future.

In mid-November, gas lines were a major topic at daily press conferences in both states.  But more recently, the problems with the gasoline infrastructure have taken a backseat to more pressing concerns, like rebuilding homes and businesses, and distributing disaster loans and temporary rental assistance.

As Sandy recedes in the rear view mirror, the question of whether long lines at gas stations and rationing will return after another catastrophic storm could depend on how business owners, government officials and the oil industry respond in the aftermath of Sandy.

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