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By Del Jones, USA TODAY
Millions of drivers will top off their gasoline tanks in a last-minute year 2000 rush that might make lines at ATM machines and supermarket checkouts seem tame by comparison.
"I'm not pulling money out of the bank. I'm not getting out of the (stock) market," says Eloise Rivers of Toledo, Ohio. "(But) when my tank gets below half, I'll fill up."
People can stock up on cash, food, batteries and water over days or weeks prior to Jan. 1, 2000. But for the average person, there is no safe way to stockpile gasoline. The rush to fill up will occur mostly Dec. 30-31, because most drivers won't risk facing Y2K with their gas gauges on empty.
Some stations - perhaps many - could run dry for hours to days.
Here's why: In normal times, the nation's 100,000 to 125,000 tank trucks are on the road an average of 20 hours a day hauling 418 million gallons of gasoline and fuel oil daily. A two-day topping-off party at the nation's 180,000 service stations could stretch trucks and drivers thin. Stations could start running out as early as New Year's Eve, experts say. Others might run out after the rush in the early days of 2000 before trucks arrive to replenish.
The oil industry says gasoline supplies are plentiful, and it's confident pumps will not fail. Computer systems that might have interpreted the year 2000 as 1900 have mostly been repaired, it says.
But there are questions about whether the industry can meet the short-term demand if millions of Americans fill up at the same time.
"Big oil is downplaying it," says Cliff Harvison, president of the National Tank Truck Carriers, an association of drivers. "I don't blame them. They don't want it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have been in touch with us, and they are expecting substantial increases in demand."
In fact, the oil industry has asked the U.S. Transportation Department to be ready to temporarily lift regulations that require drivers to get enough rest - at least nine hours in a 24-hour day - to keep the tank trucks rolling. Such regulations have been lifted regionally in the past, such as when major floods disrupted distribution by closing roads and bridges, but there has never been cause to lift regulations nationwide.
Many motorists likely will opt to play it safe.
"All my neighbors say they don't think there will be any Y2K problem, but they will fill their cars up," says James Reid, president of Petro Chemical Transport, a subsidiary of Kenan Transport, the largest transporter of motor fuels in the country.
Many businesses are taking the same play-it-safe approach. The 500 trucks of Melton Truck Lines will also top off. "I think Y2K will be a big non-event," Melton President Bob Peterson says. "But the one thing that would cripple us is if we can't refuel."
Extra trucks readied
7-Eleven, which sells gasoline at 2,200 stores, saw this coming months ago and leased three dozen extra tank trucks.
That's a solution for few others because there aren't many spare tank trucks to be pressed into temporary service. Because the extra trucks are leased, 7-Eleven might not get them if they aren't promptly returned by whoever is using them now, says Reid, whose company ships fuel to 7-Eleven stores.
There is also the chance that some drivers will celebrate on New Year's Eve, "have too many drinks and not show up the next day," says Gary Lockhart, vice president of 7-Eleven's gasoline division.
Oil companies, including Chevron and ExxonMobil, are encouraging people not to top off if their tanks are more than half full. They say tank trucks are now filling underground tanks at service stations. That will allow the trucks to ignore low-volume stations for a week or so and concentrate on stations that need to be refueled daily even in normal times.
Long lines at service stations, like those that stretched along city blocks in the 1970s, are unlikely because modern stations can handle vehicles more quickly, they say.
But 1999 might bear more than a passing resemblance to the 1970s, because those lines were caused more by consumer reaction to possible shortages than by actual shortages.
Drivers can expect stations to run out of regular unleaded first, leaving them with a choice of paying more for premium grades or moving on, Reid says.
Reid recalls when nearly half the coastal stations ran dry last September as people evacuated the Southeast in anticipation of Hurricane Floyd.
It's possible that Y2K could be more like Hurricane Floyd on a national scale, says 7-Eleven's Lockhart. But he says there is really no way of knowing.
That's the problem . There have been dozens of polls and surveys asking people how much extra cash they will withdraw and how much food and water - even champagne - they will have on hand. But gasoline has somehow slipped through the cracks. Not even the American Automobile Association has asked how many drivers plan to top off their tanks.
Hard to forecast
The industry admits it's had difficulty forecasting demand for a unique event. Chevron's year 2000 Marketing Manager Wally Kresley says the company "put marketing heads together" to estimate a 10% increase in demand.
But Brit Jones, general manager of the Giant Travel Center along Interstate 40 near the New Mexico-Arizona border, expects gasoline demand to double to 12,000 gallons a day.
A November USA TODAY/National Science Foundation poll found that 28% plan to "stock up on gasoline" for Y2K, up from 21% in August. But that might underestimate demand in the final days because those surveyed might not have considered topping off their tanks to be the same thing as "stocking up."
Major oil companies and the American Petroleum Institute are saying lines and shortages are unlikely, but are basing that assumption on demand being similar to a busy Memorial Day or Thanksgiving weekend.
"If people are frightened, they're going to run out and buy gasoline," says Denise McCourt of the American Petroleum Institute. "We don't think that's going to happen. They will feel confident."
"People are edgy," says Zach Lunderville of Cushing, Wis., who will top off his two vehicles even though he thinks chances are slim for an actual Y2K problem. "If anyone panics, many people will follow."
Lunderville will also fill gasoline cans with an extra 10 gallons. And he will get it all at the only station within 10 miles of Cushing. Gasoline can hazards
Gasoline cans present another wild card. There are an estimated 83 million cans in the USA, which often are ignored until lawn-mowing season. Blitz USA, which says it's the nation's largest maker of plastic gasoline cans, declined to release specific sales data. But company officer Chuck Craig says Blitz has had much higher demand in what is normally the slow season.
If a significant percentage of gasoline cans, old and new, are filled the last week of December, it would be enough to drive demand well above forecasts.
Gasoline stored inside houses and garages also represents a serious safety threat. Firefighters in Los Ranchos, N.M., forced a man to remove three 55-gallon drums of diesel and gasoline that they said could have destroyed a city block.
Gasoline vapors are heavier than air and can collect in a basement, then explode from contact with a pilot light, cigarette or even a light switch.
Some refineries plan to close during the Dec. 31-Jan. 1 transition as a precaution. That alone won't cause a shortage, but it could further slow distribution.
If nothing else, the heightened demand for gasoline promises to keep an upward pressure on prices. Oil prices have risen 150% since hitting a decade-low $10.35 a barrel a year ago. The national retail price for unleaded gasoline is $1.275 a gallon, the U.S. Energy Department said last week - 32 cents more than a year ago.
"Gasoline is the one thing you can't stock up on," says Y2K expert and technology consultant Leon Kappelman. "If anything will be problematic come New Year's Eve, it's this."