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Piping gasoline to distributors can get tricky

POSTED: September 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Getting gasoline from a Texas refinery to the tank of your car is no easy task.

When that situation is complicated by a widespread power outage, both at the refineries and along the pipeline, one can see why many stations have been without fuel in recent days.

"The amount of product we can bring through the pipeline is in the 70 to 80 percent range," said Richard Cobb of the Georgia Petroleum Council. "We’re getting some product. But now, we can begin importing some gasoline."

U.S. companies have purchased gasoline from Europe, just as they did after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The gasoline, which is delivered on tanker ships, bypasses the refineries and goes directly into the pipeline.

Georgia is served by a pipeline that begins at Pasadena, Texas and passes through the southern portion of Louisiana and Mississippi, where additional refineries are located. Once the fuel leaves the refinery, it is a four- to six-day trip in the pipeline to Doraville, the delivery point for Atlanta.

However, the specialized blend of gasoline required to meet federal emissions standards in a 45-county area surrounding Atlanta is produced at refineries in coastal Texas, near Houston.

The waiver, announced Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency, will allow non-conforming unleaded gasoline to be sold in Georgia through Oct. 12. The imported gasoline, as well as gasoline refined for areas outside the regulated area, can now be sold at stations in the 45-county area.

"There are a lot of companies that are sending trucks outside the Atlanta area to pick up gas," Cobb said, adding that he has heard of companies sending tankers as far away as Ohio to get fuel.

Cobb said the fuel terminal at Doraville generally holds only gasoline that is compliant for the Atlanta area. He said it remains to be seen if refiners will ship non-compliant gasoline to the Atlanta market.

"From the time they start refining it to the retail point, they have to count on about 20 or 30 days," he said, adding that Oct. 12 is the final day of the EPA waiver. He said the EPA would not likely extend the waiver out of fear of lawsuits from environmental groups.

"We have to have a low-sulphur, low RVP gasoline in place for retail on June 1," he said. "Our refineries will start shipping that on May 1 to make sure it is in place."

RVP is an abbreviation for "Reid vapor pressure," a term used to describe the evaporation characteristics.

There are 41 different blends of gasoline, often referred to as "boutique blends" that are delivered across the U.S. during the ozone season. The blend for the Atlanta region is not used anywhere else.

The head of the Georgia Oilmens Association, Roger Lane of Gainesville, said the multiple boutique fuels are the problem.

"We need somebody in the U.S. to have enough guts to say we’re going to take one gasoline, and it can be the cleanest, and say this is what’s going to be sold in the U.S.," Lane said, adding that there would be fewer disruptions and the cost would be lower.

Lane said it has been a tough time for members of his organization, who cannot serve their customers with fuel. He said convenience stores with gasoline pumps see their business dry up when pumps are shut down.

"We’re losing our back side," he said.

Donald Smallwood of D-Jay Petroleum, said he has begun bringing in fuel both from Doraville and from Athens. He said he has obtained priority loads of fuel to serve public safety agencies.

Smallwood said this is the most challenging time in 30 years, since the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s.

"We hope this will be short lived," Smallwood said. "If everybody would not buy gas until they have to have it, there will be enough gas to go around."

Meantime, as refineries come back to life, there is plenty of oil waiting to be unloaded and refined.

"The last report said there were 73 ships full of crude oil waiting to be unloaded in the Gulf of Mexico," Cobb said.



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