As sporadic lines began forming at area gas stations Thursday and photos of empty gasoline pumps began ricocheting across social media, hundreds of motorists opted for the precautionary measure of joining the queues themselves to top off — armed in many cases with extra gas cans.
Gasoline supplies have been constrained statewide since Hurricane Harvey walloped the Gulf Coast’s huge energy complex a week ago, but operators of local stations and state officials have said the issue was being managed for the most part with only minor inconveniences.
Until, that is, “panic buying” started to set in around lunchtime Thursday, industry experts say.
“A lot of gas stations ran out for no other reason than 10 times as many people tried to fill up” compared with normal, said Jesus Azanza, a spokesman for the Texas Food and Fuel Association, which represents an estimated 12,000 convenience stores, grocery stores and truck stops that sell gasoline. “What happened is everybody filled up within 36 to 48 hours, and it really put a strain on the whole system.”
The result is that the region — and much of the state — is facing an extremely tight local gasoline supply heading into the long Labor Day holiday weekend.
The “panic buying” instinct isn’t unusual under the circumstances, said Art Markman, a University of Texas psychology professor and co-host of the “Two Guys on Your Head” radio show and podcast.
“It is a perfectly normal reaction to being scared of something, but it leads to a bad long-term outcome that didn’t have to happen,” Markman said.
Markman said the motorists’ behavior has been understandable, even if it has exacerbated the supply problem and likely would be of little help to them anyway in the event of a long-term gasoline shortage.
“When you drive by a gas station, and there is a line of eight cars, you begin to think, ‘Well, I don’t want to be the only one left,’” without gas, Markman said. “It’s a response that probably made people feel a little better.”
Gasoline supplies are expected to start returning to normal early next week, as more refineries that had been shut down because of Harvey become operational again.
Cary Rabb, owner of the Round Rock-based Wag-A-Bag convenience store chain, said a Corpus Christi refinery operated by Flint Hills Resources — which provides the bulk of gasoline dispensed at Austin area gas stations — has started up again. A Flint Hills spokesman couldn’t be reached for comment Friday, although he confirmed Thursday that the startup process had begun.
Gov. Greg Abbott also announced Friday that other states have agreed to send gasoline to Texas to ensure a “greater supply,” even as he reiterated comments from other state officials Thursday that the state isn’t running out of fuel and that the issue has mainly been one of logistics.
Regardless, Rabb and others said motorists in Austin, Dallas and elsewhere in the state could be in for a difficult Labor Day weekend in terms of fuel availability, even if the supply constraints are expected to begin lifting shortly thereafter.
“Without panic buying, we would have been fine,” said Rabb, whose company operates 18 stores in the area. “It’s hysteria. Everyone is filling up every vehicle and every gas can they can find.”
Rabb said nearly all his stations had run out of fuel by Thursday night after lines began forming spontaneously around noon. The stores were resupplied early Friday, albeit not to full capacity because of a rationing system by distributors that has been in place since the hurricane struck.
“Some may make it through the day, but others won’t,” Rabb said. The distributor rationing system “was working fine, before the panic buying. We normally never run out of fuel — ever. “
In Austin on Friday morning, drivers were piled into lines that were more than 10 cars deep at a Shell station at the corner of Riverside Drive and Royal Crest, winding through the station’s parking lot and out into the street. A few miles east on Riverside, many gas pumps had paper signs saying there was no gas or that the pumps were out of order, but there were also several that had short lines of three to four cars.
Markman said ongoing uncertainty regarding the extent of the damage to the Gulf’s refineries and other energy infrastructure likely persuaded some drivers to fill up even if they weren’t on empty. Still, he noted that a few extra gallons of gas aren’t a significant cushion in the event of a major, long-term supply disruption — but it can contribute to a short-term problem if everyone opts to top off.
“People are feeling like there’s a potential danger out there, and they think they’re just taking a little action to make sure they’re safe in it,” Markman said. “It’s very hard for us to judge the collective influence of a bunch of individual actions.”
Staff writer Mark D. Wilson contributed to this report.