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Gas stations either on empty or full

La. fuel prices hit record high

By Allen Powell and Mary Judice
Staff writers

Swathed in orange mesh vests with clip-on ties dangling from their shirt pockets, Angneak Cannon and Kimberly Converse were doing a fairly good impression of traffic cops at the Exxon gas station on the corner of Bluebonnet Road and Airline Highway Saturday morning.

Cannon, 24, had the standard police hand gestures down pat as she barked out orders to drivers waiting for gas in a line that started snaking around the station's main building at 7 a.m. Ruling the parking lot with an iron fist, Cannon disdainfully thwarted drivers attempting to circumvent the line, but still managed a humorous outlook on the whole situation.

"They coming with barrels and cans, anything. These people are crazy," Cannon said.

Cannon said there is no limit on how much gas drivers may purchase, but added, "Ain't no skipping and no fighting. Not today."

Hurricane Katrina has turned the process of finding gas in Baton Rouge into a demented scavenger hunt with signs along the streets dolefully proclaiming "NO GAS," and many station managers clueless about when the next shipment will arrive. Drivers searched for blocks to find pumps that were not draped in plastic bags, and some stations would only allow drivers five minutes to fill tanks.

On Perkins Road, a few miles away from Cannon's swamped station, drivers at Shell and Chevron stations were able to get their gas in roughly five to 10 minutes. Jan Soule, of Baton Rouge, said this was her first time having to fill up since Katrina hit, and she was surprised at the ease of the experience. Soule said she was only filling up her vehicle and didn't feel the need to hoard gas in gas cans.

On a quick ride through Baton Rouge along Perkins Road, Highland Drive, College Drive, Airline Highway and several other streets, more than 10 gas stations were without gasoline.

As spot shortages hit Baton Rouge area service stations and gasoline prices in Louisiana hit all time highs Friday, prices for gas for future delivery fell 23 cents a gallon on the New York Mercantile.

The loss of Gulf of Mexico oil production and much of the Gulf Coast refinery production in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exacerbated already tight supplies nationwide, causing gasoline shortages.

Mike Right, spokesman for the American Automobile Association in St. Louis, said shortages were being experienced in Baton Rogue, Jackson, Miss.; and some parts of Tennessee -- areas which received New Orleans evacuees.

In Baton Rouge, regular gasoline hit an all time high of $2.59 a gallon Friday, according to AAA, up more than 42 cents a gallon higher from a month ago. A year ago, motorists paid $1.79 a gallon for regular unleaded in the Baton Rouge market and an average $1.84 a gallon for diesel. As motorists elsewhere in the nation filled tanks for Labor Day travel, they paid more than $3 a gallon in some markets.

Right said he did not know if any stations had shut down in the Baton Rouge area Saturday because the organization could not get in touch with its survey team in the Louisiana market.

"Hopefully it is a temporary situation where they are out of product for a couple of hours,'' he said. "The oil companies are making a significant effort to keep the area supplied because of demand for fuel for emergency vehicles.''

One problem in the Baton Rouge market is the population explosion, Right said.

"Demand is up significantly from Friday of last week,'' he said.

"It will be difficult to keep up.'' In areas directly affected by the storm, he said shortages were more widespread and of longer duration.

As of midday Saturday 79 percent of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico remained shut down and almost one-third of the manned platforms in the Gulf evacuated.

Yet gasoline supplies are expected to increase shortly.

Exxon Mobil has received approval from the Department of Energy for a loan of up to six million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase gasoline production at its second largest refinery in Baton Rouge.

The refinery also expects oil from the nation's only deep water oil port, Louisiana Offshore Oil Port which is located in the Gulf of Mexico below Grand Isle.

"The issue has been getting crude into the refinery,'' Mark Boudreaux, Exxon Mobil's media relations manager said Saturday from Dallas.

Boudreaux said the refinery had operated at reduced capacity during the storm but had never been shut down.

"We are ramping up gasoline production now,'' he said. "This will help ease customer demands in regions hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina."

Boudreaux said Exxon is working to restore power to the pipeline and marine transportation system to get oil into the refinery and gasoline to consumers in the affected area and elsewhere.

There may be some price relief in sight. Oil futures fell for the second consecutive day Friday to close down 23 cents at $68.71 a barrel in New York Mercantile Exchange trading. Futures had soared to a high of $70 a barrel in trading Thursday.

The price drop for crude futures may have resulted from news that oil companies would bring additional supplies of gasoline from Europe.

Bloomberg News reported that oil companies were importing 130 million gallons of gasoline.

Cannon said she and Converse typically work at an Exxon station on Essen Lane and Perkins Road, but said they were told Saturday that their store was one of six Exxon stations in Baton Rouge that will be closed because there is not enough gas to supply it.
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