Fuel experts say gasoline consumers had it easy during recent storms

There was plenty of inconvenience, but no real threat of a fuel shortage in the days following both last October’s nor’easter and Tropical Storm Irene, industry experts told a state panel Wednesday.

But if Connecticut were to face a major hurricane similar to the one that struck in 1938, emergency fuel supplies could be exhausted within a week or two.

Irene, which hit the state on Aug. 27-28, and the Oct. 29 snowstorm that dumped over a foot on much of northern and central Connecticut, “were more of an inconvenience than a life-threatening situation,” Eugene Guilford, executive director of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association, told Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two Storm Panel. “For a few days there was definitely some stress in our industry.”

When roughly two-thirds of the state is without electrical power, it’s safe to assume an equal percentage of Connecticut’s nearly 1,200 gasoline stations are out as well — and therefore unable to pump gasoline, said Guilford, whose association represents more than 570 gasoline distributors and home heating oil dealers.

Most people “had to drive a little farther and wait a little longer” to find an open station and get through a long line, but there was no real threat of supplies running out, Guilford added. Most stations that ran out did so because of the excessive demand, but were quickly restocked within a day or two.

That’s because neither storm interfered greatly with the port at New Haven harbor, where about 60 percent of Connecticut’s fuel arrives in the state, nor with other key importing sites at Providence and Newburgh, N.Y., Guilford said.

The nor’easter didn’t affect the ports at all, while Irene disrupted activities in New Haven for about one day, a problem that was resolved easily by increasing fuel purchases from terminals in Rhode Island and New York. And because most fuel initially arrives in the region by ship, prolonged shortages haven’t been an issue in decades.

But what happens if severe weather shuts down operations along much of the north Atlantic coast?

Members of the Two Storm Panel are determining what Connecticut needs to do to prepare for even more severe storms, such as the Category 3 hurricane that struck Connecticut in 1938.

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, which is used by the National Weather Service to classify hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean or northern Pacific Ocean, ranks categories 1 through 5 in terms of increasing severity. A Category 3 Hurricane features winds ranging from 111 to 130 mph with “high risk of injury or death” and “devastating damage” to buildings, other structures and trees.

In that event, Guilford said, Connecticut’s ports, as well as those in Rhode Island and New York, could be shut down.

The U.S. Department of Energy requires the Northeast region to maintain a strategic petroleum reserve of 2 million barrels, with portions of the reserve held in Providence, New Haven and New Jersey. This could last between five days and two weeks “depending on how cold it is,” Guilford said.

“A large Category 3 storm clearly puts us in a position of extreme vulnerability,” said panel Chairman Joseph McGee, a former state economic development commissioner and vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County.

If ports in Connecticut and neighboring states were to be shut down for a prolonged period, the state might have to transport fuel by land from ports in Maine, Pennsylvania or even farther, Guilford said. One of the Two Storm Panel’s top charges is to assess and improve emergency response plans for state and local governments as well as key groups in the private sector.

Also Tuesday, Guilford and the director of another gasoline dealers association argued against a proposal to require at least some stations to have a generator on site to ensure service during power outages.

Rep. Zeke Zalaski, D-Southington, pledged after the Oct. 29 storm to introduce legislation next year that would set a generator mandate.

Zalaski said Wednesday that he is still developing the proposal, but he doesn’t anticipate requiring most stations to have generators, only particularly large ones that serve a large customer base.

“It’s a public safety issue,” Zalaski said, adding that this involves more than dangerously long lines of cars that blocked roads and intersections near the relatively few stations that didn’t lose power in the recent storms. “Many people were claiming they couldn’t get gasoline for their generators, and that was the key thing. … Seniors were really scared.”

But Michael J. Fox, executive director of the Stamford-based Gasoline and Automotive Service Dealers of America, said that while fuel stations may be known by their franchise names — Mobil, Shell, Exxon and others — those aren’t the owners. Major oil refiners can sell franchise rights, but can’t own fueling stations. They are owned primarily by small businesses.

“It appears to me that we are taking the usual legislative approach of reacting to the problem, not solving the problem,” Fox said, urging the panel to recommend that electric utilities be required to significantly increase tree-trimming work near power lines.

Fox predicted that stations affected by Zalaski’s proposed mandate would face big costs for a generator they would use about three times per year.

And Guilford added that most stations would need at least a 100 kilowatt generator, which would cost between $25,000 and $50,000, depending on whether it is portable or installed. Gasoline stations “would be forced to make expensive investments without the ability to recover these costs,” he said.