After more than a year of pandemic restrictions, nearly 50 million Americans are expected to travel during the Independence Day break — and while motorists are used to paying a premium for fuel on holidays, there’s also the risk that some pumps could be running dry.
This time, it’s not hackers to blame, no shutdowns like the one that hit the Colonial Pipeline in May. The problem is getting fuel from refineries to pumps with a serious shortage of drivers for the nation’s tank truck fleet.
In recent days, there have been reports of pumps running dry all along the Pacific coast, as well as Colorado, Iowa, Indiana and Ohio, according to tracking sites such as the Oil Price Information Service. And the situation could get even more severe as motorists take to the road for the holiday.
The AAA estimates 47.7 million Americans will travel for the holiday, a 40% increase from the pandemic-plagued 4th of July break in 2020, though still slightly down from 2019 numbers. About 43.6 million will take to the highways, the travel service forecasts.
As is the norm, fuel prices have gone up in anticipation of higher demand. GasBuddy.com showed prices for regular fuel running a national average of just over $3.13 a gallon as of Friday morning, July 2. That’s about a nine cent jump in the past 30 days.
The increase is actually modest heading into a major holiday, based on historical records, however. And it actually lags the roughly 20-cent run-up between the beginning of April and June 1. A sharp increase in gasoline stocks during June helped rein in costs, according to AAA.
“Despite the latest increase in demand, many motorists are not seeing significant pump price jumps due to increasing stock levels, which have significantly built over the last four weeks,” Jeanette McGee, AAA spokesperson said late last month.
Plenty of fuel — at the refinery
There is plenty of fuel at refineries and even regional storage depots across the country, particularly with the Colonial Pipeline and other national distribution networks up and running. The problem is getting fuel to local pumps.
This has been a matter of growing concern for several years, escalated by the pandemic. The National Tank Truck Carriers, a trade group, reported this spring that 20 to 25% of gasoline tankers were sitting idle, with no one available to put behind the wheel. And, if anything, trucking companies are finding it difficult to replace drivers who continue to quit or retire in large numbers. If anything, the number of drivers who quit the business accelerated in 2020 as demand for fuel plunged and tanker companies cut work schedules.
Operating a tanker truck can be a dangerous job and requires additional training and licensing. So, resolving the shortage of drivers could take time to address.
For now, that means service stations placing an order for more fuel might have to wait a couple days, rather than expect same-day delivery, said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis for the Oil Price Information Service.
Spot shortages – and what to do if you find one
AAA’s McGree told TheDetroitBureau.com spot shortages were already popping up around the country by April, especially in popular destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando.
Where else shortages might pop up is hard to predict, according to Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy. So far, they’ve been “random in nature,” and motorists could find one station completely dry while others nearby have plenty of fuel.
“What we don’t want to happen this holiday is for someone to see a bagged pump and start to panic,” McGee told the Bloomberg news service.
Experts offer several bits of advice:
- Make sure to have plenty of fuel in your tank before heading out on the road;
- Don’t let your car run dry before seeking a place to refill — especially if you’re in parts of the country where service stations are few and far between;
- If you do pull off and find a station has run dry, look around. Odds are there’s another place nearby with plenty of fuel;
- Use one of the many apps, like GasBuddy, to track fuel availability on the road. They’ll also help you find the best price.