Gas Shortage 2021: Why Is There a Shortage? What Should I Do?

We Only Have a Gas Shortage Because We Created It Ourselves

And we can fix it, too—as soon as we stop hoarding gasoline.

colonial pipeline
Bill ClarkGetty Images
  • There's no real gas shortage in the southeastern U.S.—just a perceived one.
  • Panic buying has caused gas stations to run dry, perpetuating yet more panic buying, and forcing some regions into a State of Emergency.
  • Experts say you should put down that spare oil can, quit panic-buying, and make a few small adjustments to get your current gas tank to stretch out for longer.

    Over half of the gas stations in Virginia are without gasoline. Things are even more grim in North Carolina, where almost three-quarters of stations are out of petrol, according to Gas Buddy, a company that helps consumers find real-time gas prices. Governors in both states have declared the crisis a State of Emergency.

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    This is a portrait of the southeastern U.S. following a cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline—and a subsequent shutdown of the portion that supplies gasoline and jet fuel from Texas to New Jersey. While the pipeline is back online, drivers have already been panicking and racing to local gas stations for more than just a last top-off.

    Why Is There a Gas Shortage?

    By Wednesday, demand for gas in the U.S. had already skyrocketed 14.5 percent, according to Patrick De Haan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy. Hoarding behavior has become so extreme (and bizarre) that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has even warned the public it's not a good idea to fill plastic bags with gasoline. Yes, really.

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    The fear of a gas shortage has perpetuated the crisis. It's a cyclical problem: As drivers buy up gas in excess, stations run dry, more people see the empty pumps, buy more gas, and further increase the scarcity.

    Will Gas Prices Keep Going Up?

    map of active gas distribution along colonial pipeline
    Colonial Pipeline Company

    On Thursday morning, Colonial announced it has made "substantial progress" in restarting operations, stating gas delivery has commenced in most markets.

    "By mid-day [Thursday] we project that each market we service will be receiving product from our system," Colonial said in the statement. "The green segments on this map [see above] are operational, meaning product delivery has commenced. Blue lines will be operational later today."

    It's important to keep in mind the Colonial Pipeline isn't a producer of oil, but a means of transporting oil. The American Automobile Association (AAA) says it delivers about 45 percent of all fuel to the East Coast, and it takes between 15 and 18 days for the oil to travel from end to end between Texas and New York Harbor.

    Because some regions have access to other sources of fuel—including tankers that deliver fuel across the northeast, New York Harbor barges, and midwest refinery barrels—analysts don't expect prices to jump in states north of Delaware.

    But in southern states with more dependence on the Colonial Pipeline, analysts predict prices will continue to climb, reaching a high over Memorial Day weekend. In a worst-case scenario, drivers in Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and parts of Florida could see a price hike of up to 30 cents, De Haan told MarketWatch.

    Hoarding gasoline will only drag this out. If you live in the southeast and you can go without fuel, do so. Not only will you help reinstate normal operations in the southeast, but you'll also save money; if you stock up now, you'll pay more.

    What Can I Do in a Gas Shortage?

    Practically speaking, it doesn't matter whether a deficit is real or perceived if you can't find the commodity in question. When every gas station within a 15-mile radius is out of fuel, that's a real concern for people who are trying to commute or simply want to keep their tank full in case of an emergency.

    For what it's worth, AAA strongly advises against panic buying. So put down that red fuel can and consider these options instead.

    ⛽️ Strategy #1: Minimize travel where possible.

    If you're lucky enough to have the option, ask your boss if you can work from home for now. If that's not possible, use your commute wisely and plan out your errands in advance, hitting shops that aren't too far off the route. If you can avoid rush hour, even better—time spent idling is time spent wasting more precious oil.

    ⛽️ Strategy #2: Carpool.

    Yes, we are still in the throes of a pandemic, but if you absolutely must travel, consider a carpool option. If you live with someone who also needs to get to work, consider driving together in one car, rather than two, taking whichever vehicle is more fuel-efficient.

    ⛽️ Strategy #3: Take public transit.

    It's pretty common for large transportation authorities to maintain their own reserve of fuel. The city of Huntsville, Alabama, for example, says it keeps a reserve set aside specifically for emergencies like hurricanes or power outages. The Charlotte Area Transit System, meanwhile, is offering fare-free rides on its buses and trains to help out commuters who can't find gasoline for their cars.

    While you should always check your local transit authority's website before heading out, there's a pretty good chance you can snag a ride on a bus or a train in a pinch.

    ⛽️ Strategy #4: Make the most of your current tank.

    If you're lucky enough to be sitting atop a full tank of gas, take a few precautions that will stretch it out further than usual.

    Remove unnecessary bulk. This includes roof racks, special carriers, and those garbage bags in the trunk you've been meaning to drop off at Goodwill for the last 3 months. According to AAA, "it takes more fuel to accelerate a heavier car, and the reduction in fuel economy is greater for small cars than for larger models."

    Turn off the A/C. Even at highway speeds, open windows will impact your fuel economy less than the power required to run your air conditioner. That said, park in the shade if you can—it will reduce your need for air conditioning.

    ⛽️ Strategy #5: Use GasBuddy to find fuel.

    You can use the GasBuddy app—available on both iOS and Android devices—to find gas stations with fuel and compare prices. (Just be aware that the app will want your location data.)


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