After Sandy, a look at gas distribution

Dozens of people wait in line at the Dozens of people wait in line at the Mobil gas station on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream. (Nov. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Steven Sunshine

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When New Jersey gasoline terminals were flooded by superstorm Sandy, Long Island drivers were in trouble. When the crucial Island terminals in Inwood also flooded, drivers were sunk.

The powerful tidal surge from Sandy, and the widespread power outages from the storm, crippled the complicated and vulnerable infrastructure that brings gasoline to Long Island. At least nine of 20 critically important fuel terminals at the Port of New York's Linden, Bayonne and Newark shorelines and two more in Brooklyn were inoperable. The Island's largest distribution point, in Inwood, also lost much of its capacity.

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    The result: a major interruption in the flow of gasoline to Long Island, whose 2.6 million vehicles burn about 23 million gallons of it in an average week. Three days after the storm, lines began appearing at stations in Nassau and Suffolk, reminiscent of those during the 1970s oil embargo. Hundreds of thousands of people living in cold houses with no power were forced to wait, often for hours, to fill their cars and gas cans.

    Efforts to alleviate the Island's dependence on those terminals would be expensive and encounter major environmental and aesthetic obstacles, experts say.

    "If money was no object you could just build terminals all around Long Island," said Andy Lipow, president of the consulting firm Lipow Oil Associates Llc in Houston. "They would have to be large enough to accept imports from Europe. But I just can't imagine that on the South Shore or the North Shore you're going to be willing to build tanks with a couple of million barrels of storage."

    Local gas retailers and industry experts say less costly and less controversial measures can be taken to avoid a repeat of the post-Sandy gasoline debacle, including establishment of a gasoline reserve and getting power restored faster to gas stations that lose it.

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    How LI gets its gas

    Gasoline comes to Long Island from U.S. refineries and 36 countries, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, India, Spain, Nigeria, Norway and Russia. The vast majority of these imports are delivered, via pipelines and tankers, to the New Jersey portion of the New York Harbor.

    From there, fuel goes by pipeline, barge or truck to three main terminals at Inwood, located east of John F. Kennedy International Airport; by barge to a terminal in Glenwood Landing, in northern Nassau; and by barge to Port Jefferson Harbor, where it's piped inland to an East Setauket storage facility and then piped to a terminal in Holtsville, owned by Northville Industries.

    From "racks," overhead pipes that dispense fuel into delivery trucks, at Inwood, Holtsville and Glenwood Landing, the gasoline is distributed to individual gas stations.

    The system has a major bottleneck: New York Harbor. With the harbor closed for three days after Sandy, and with terminals and pipeline pump stations in New Jersey flooded, powerless or both, the supply of gas reaching the Island slowed to a trickle. Delivery restrictions in Port Jefferson Harbor, to address concerns about empty barges bobbing about in the storm, also briefly hampered supplies reaching Holtsville.

    In addition, the Colonial Pipeline, which carries fuel from the U.S. Gulf region to the Northeast, shut down for four days because of power outages; and the Buckeye Pipeline, from Linden, N.J. to Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, Astoria and the Inwood terminals, operated at reduced capacity on generator power for several days after the storm.

    Two of Inwood's terminals reopened quickly. But the largest, owned by Motiva Enterprises, remained closed, putting added pressure on Long Island's other terminals, where trucks waited in long lines, sometimes for hours, to fill up.

    Even if they could get deliveries, many of the Island's more than 1,000 gasoline stations had no power to pump fuel into cars and trucks. Those that had gas and could pump it were quickly swamped by motorists worried about running dry -- until demand was reduced by odd-even rationing instituted 11 days after the storm.

    Kevin Beyer, president of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association, suggested that one way to avoid a repeat is for utilities such as LIPA to make gas stations a higher priority for power restoration. "We should come after the nursing homes and hospitals and traffic lights," he said.

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    Need for pre-emptive plan

    State and county legislation has been proposed to require stations to have generators, but gasoline retailers are balking at the cost -- $18,000 to $20,000 with installation for a unit that can run a local gas station, said Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the Gasoline and Automotive Service Dealers Association and the umbrella New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops.

    Some in the industry say elected officials waited much too long to impose odd-even rationing, which ended last weekend. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put rationing into effect on Nov. 3, six days after the storm.

    "The most critical thing would have been odd-even on day one," said Brian Fioretti, vice president of Island Transportation, whose trucks deliver gasoline. "The first thing government needs to do is control the people."

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    Fioretti said his 120 trucks were unable to keep up with demand run wild.

    Some in the industry also are critical of the Coast Guard for not opening the Port of New York until three days after Sandy.

    Beyer and Bombardiere say the delay points to something that's needed: a single governmental entity to monitor the fuel supply and having the power to avert or at least alleviate shortages -- perhaps by redirecting supply or providing extra trucks where they're needed. The state energy office, created during the 1970s gas shortages, once filled that role, Bombardiere said. But, in the 1990s, it was folded into the state Energy Research Development Authority, which itself has been allowed to shrink through attrition, Bombardiere said.

    Northville Industries chairman Gene Bernstein says officials need to take pre-emptive steps when a major storm is forecast, such as providing temporary waivers of clean air rules to clear the way for gasoline from other regions to be sold here.

    "If you can't get product from New York Harbor, you should be able to get it from somewhere else," he said.

    Lipow suggests that before a storm, generators for terminals and service stations be situated in places that are not flood-prone; and storing additional gasoline supplies in tanker trucks parked in flood-safe areas or in gasoline stations that have generators.

    Solutions for avoiding the New York Harbor bottleneck are more elusive -- and expensive.

    The administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants to explore the idea of new pipelines from New England, built with federal funds.

    Lipow notes, though, that New England has no refineries; like New York, it gets its fuel from abroad, via tanker into Boston, Providence or New Haven, or via barges -- from New York Harbor.

    Another hurdle: getting approvals to build pipelines through heavily populated areas. "You're dealing with such incredible rights-of-way issues that it isn't a palatable solution," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J.

    The Cuomo administration also is considering proposing a gasoline reserve for emergencies, similar to the million-barrel Northeast heating oil reserve.

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