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Phoenix Lines Up for Gasoline

Ruptured pipeline lifts prices well over $2 a gallon. It can be hard to find any fuel in the city.

August 21, 2003|Elizabeth Douglass and Elizabeth Kelly | Times Staff Writers

PHOENIX — Gasoline prices across the nation are expected to keep rising until after Labor Day, federal energy officials said Wednesday. But in this desert city, motorists are having trouble finding it at any price.

"I just lucked out here," said a relieved Ray Addis as he filled up his white Dodge Dakota pickup truck for $2.39 a gallon at one of the few stations selling gas Wednesday morning.

Addis had gone prowling for gas at 1:30 a.m. the day before, hoping for easy pickings. Instead, he found a queue at a station that wasn't even open.

"A guy in line said, 'I'm just going to sleep here until I get some gas,' " Addis recalled, "and he didn't even know if a tank was coming." Addis himself went home empty.

Such tales aren't uncommon this week in Phoenix, where a gasoline shortage has melted motorists' daily routines like ice cubes on the city's scorching sidewalks.

The shortage started when a fuel pipeline ruptured outside Tucson, halting the flow of gasoline into Phoenix from refineries in El Paso. The pipeline, which delivers 30% of Phoenix's supply, has been out of commission since Aug. 8.

Pipeline owner Kinder Morgan Energy Partners said Wednesday that pressure tests showed the line wasn't ready to reopen. The company said it hoped fuel would be flowing again this weekend.

In the meantime, oil companies are trucking fuel from Tucson to Phoenix. But there haven't been enough tanker trucks, or hours in the day, to offset the loss.

The other pipeline into Phoenix, from the Los Angeles region, stepped up deliveries 15%. That siphoned off supplies to California, contributing to an average price increase of nearly 18 cents a gallon in the Golden State for the week ended Monday, the sharpest jump in four years.

But if California motorists are grumbling, their counterparts in Phoenix are on the verge of panic.

Of the city's 1,000 gasoline stations, up to half are completely dry at any given time, according to David Cowley, spokesman for Arizona AAA.

A few fights have broken out after impatient drivers tried to cut in line. And some tanker drivers have had to fight off people to unload their fuel, according to Andrea Martincic, executive director of the Arizona Petroleum Marketers Assn., a trade group for fuel wholesalers.

"Some of our members have had to hire security guards to man their locations," she said.

The shortage can be especially hard on business. Steve Bushard, owner of Top Priority Messenger Service, said three of his 32 contract drivers, who buy their own gas, quit, unable to make money because of the time they had to spend in line. His messenger service's customers share the pain -- delivery times can be pushed back as much as an hour as drivers scour the streets for gas.

Irene Preston, co-owner of Bloom's Flower & Gift Shop and Preston Funeral Home, topped off her fleet of company vehicles Monday. On Wednesday, she was crossing her fingers the crisis would ease before the tanks hit empty.

"We don't want to get into panic mode, seeing that delivery and removals are our business," Preston said. "We are hoping this is temporary."

On Wednesday, gas lines typically averaged about 10 cars -- down from hours-long waits earlier in the week.

Finding out where gas is for sale has become an obsession. Drivers can be seen shouting out to people parked in line, asking if the station is pumping. Other motorists tail tanker trucks, hoping to catch them delivering fuel to a station. TV and radio crews have also gotten into the act, combing the streets for open stations and then broadcasting the information live.

Marisol Martinez was standing in line at a bank Wednesday when "a lady said there was gas" at a nearby Diamond Shamrock station. She rushed there to gas up.

"I've been on fumes," said Martinez, whose husband missed work at his construction job Wednesday because his Ford pickup was out of gas.

Because of short supplies and high demand across the country, the Energy Information Administration said Wednesday that U.S. motorists should expect gasoline prices to keep increasing until after Labor Day.

AAA is predicting that the early arrival of Labor Day this year could spur the heaviest end-of-summer travel in nine years. Prices should ease in September as more gas finds it way to market and demand tapers off, the EIA said.

Douglass reported from Phoenix and Kelly from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Nancy Rivera Brooks in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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