Area convenience store managers were scrambling Friday morning to find fuel from regional wholesalers in Wilmington and Selma.
The national price of gas hovered around $2.559 as of Friday and the state average came in a few pennies lower at $2.529, according to Gas Buddy, an online platform where users post real-time gas prices from their communities.
Around the region Kinston motorists can expect to see a narrow range of prices from as low as $2.369 at the Citgo on N.C. 55 to a high of $2.459 at the BP on East New Bern Road. In New Bern prices have moved in lockstep with most stations posting regular unleaded at $2.459 while Jacksonville consumers can see a wider gulf in pricing from a low of $2.349 at the Murphy Express on U.S. 258 to a high of $2.599 a few miles west at the Scotchman on Richlands Highway.
With pump prices jumping by more than 40 cents a gallon throughout the nation and in eastern North Carolina due to Gulf Coast refinery shutdowns and distribution disruptions brought on by the devastating floods from Hurricane Harvey, consumers of gasoline have been watching the marquee at their neighborhood filling station change on a daily basis.
The sudden escalation of retail prices on travelers brought mixed emotions. Jacksonville resident Stephen Anderson was nonchalantly filling up his 2004 Ford Sport Trac with 93 octane priced at $3.079 per gallon at the Handy Mart on Richlands Highway.
“We’re heading up to Raleigh for a soccer tournament so I’m filling up here because I don’t know what it will cost once we get up there. Right now, this price doesn’t bother me,” Anderson said.
Beryl Packer’s business requires an eye for detail and the bottom line, but for past week she's been watching the price of gasoline.
“It’s huge,” said Packer, the president and chief executive officer of Molly Maid of The Crystal Coast. "It has an impact on our business and on our profits. These are costs we cannot pass along to our clients."
The Cedar Point cleaning franchise covers a wide swath of ENC — Onslow, Carteret, Craven, Duplin and Jones counties — with a fleet of 11 company vehicles that average 30 miles per gallon but rack up more than 12,000 miles per year.
“Our monthly fuel bill before the increase in price averaged about $700 per month, give-or-take $25 to $30. We operate on slim margins,” Packer said of her 4 1/2-year-old business.
People who make their living driving, such as licensed cab drivers, make note of the daily — and sometimes hourly — fluctuation of gas prices as they shuttle fares throughout cities, town and the region. Yellow Cab driver Constance Batson picked up a passenger Friday morning in Swansboro requesting a ride to Fayetteville.
Batson drove as far as Richlands before deciding to “top off” her tank before continuing on N.C. 24 to Cumberland County.
"I hate the rise in the price but at least I have a $300 fare. I’ll have to see what I pay tonight,” Batson said.
Batson said she would be watching gas prices in other towns as she drives to Fayetteville, believing Clinton may yield the lowest priced gas. As of Friday afternoon, according to Gas Buddy, regular unleaded is selling for $2.119 at the Marathon station on Lisbon Street in Clinton.
Harvey's far reach
Much of the fuel that consumers pump into their vehicle’s fuel tanks is transported into the region via massive pipelines emanating in the Gulf Coast region of Texas and Louisiana, then trucked to local gas stations in 10,000-gallon tanker trucks.
Colonial Pipeline, based in Alpharetta, Georgia, has the largest interstate network with more than 5,500 miles of buried and elevated pipelines. The company has the ability to move more than 100 million gallons of gasoline, home heating oil, aviation fuel and other refined petroleum products each day from the refineries to depots and terminals between Texas and New York Harbor. A second pipeline company owned by Kinder Morgan moves similar products into the Southeast, albeit at 25 percent the volume that Colonial delivers.
Colonial Pipeline’s latest statement issued Thursday morning said, “Colonial’s Lines 1 and 2 continue to operate from Lake Charles east. Deliveries will be intermittent and dependent on terminal and refinery supply. The lines remain down from Houston to Hebert due to the storms. We currently estimate that we will be able to return to service from Houston Sunday, following an evaluation of our infrastructure and successful execution of our start up plan.”
Late Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency to temporarily waive the cap on maximum hours of service restrictions for fuel vehicles traveling in and through North Carolina. Cooper said the order will help gasoline move in and through North Carolina more easily and quickly in response to delivery problems caused by Hurricane Harvey.
“I’m taking action to make it easier to get gasoline into our state so North Carolinians who need gas can get it,” Cooper said.
The governor also signed Executive Order No. 18, declaring an abnormal market disruption for gasoline in North Carolina based on the temporary shutdown of Texas and Louisiana fuel refineries due to Hurricane Harvey. As a result, North Carolina’s price gouging law against overcharging in a time of crisis is now in effect statewide for the next 45 days, Cooper’s office said in a written statement.
The economic impact of natural disasters such as Harvey goes far beyond the costs of repair and rebuilding communities devastated by the storm’s wrath. Lost opportunity, workers unable to get to work and businesses shuttered for a myriad of reasons add to the overall cost and yet sometimes, they are difficult to calculate. It’s one household multiplied by tens of thousands, like Hubert resident Kelly Waldvogel, that add up to real costs.
Waldvogel plans to stay close to home rather than hit the road until the situation stabilizes.
“We planned to take the kids to Wilmington or Raleigh this weekend to do something fun. We decided to find something local to do instead. With both cars under half and not very good on gas we didn't see any need to spend the extra on that right now,” Waldvogel said.
Even when shuttered refineries get back online and the supply chain begins moving fuel at pre-Hurricane Harvey volumes, another potential pump-price manipulator is on the horizon with the possibility of hitting the driving public in the wallet once again.
Hurricane Irma is already a Category 3 hurricane churning in the Atlantic and expected to be a weather maker sometime next week, something Anderson is more concerned about than paying $3.079 for unleaded premium Friday morning.
“I’m more concerned about Irma,” Anderson said as he drove off to Raleigh.
ENC Media Group reporter Mike McHugh can be reached at 910-219-8455 or email at email@example.com.