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Out Of Gas, Out Of Luck: Charlotte Scrambles As Gas Stations Run Dry But Pipeline Restarts

Gasoline Shortage
Jennifer Lang
This gas station in Stallings was out of fuel by mid-afternoon Tuesday.

Charlotte residents awoke Wednesday to disconcerting news if they had to drive anywhere: 71% of gas stations in Charlotte were out of fuel.

That’s according to GasBuddy, an app that tracks gasoline prices and availability.

By midafternoon, 65% of stations in all of North Carolina were without gasoline, according to the app – the highest shortage of any state.

Officially, there is no gas shortage. But a cyberattack on the pipeline that delivers 45% of gasoline to the East Coast caused panic buying of fuel Tuesday, the dry gas stations and business and government adjustments.

Colonial Pipeline initiated the restart of operations late Wednesday, “which means that all lines, including those lateral lines that have been running manually, will return to normal operations,” the company said in a statement. But it will take several days for deliveries to return to normal, the company said.

In the meantime, drivers have been finding gas stations with little or no gas in some Southeast states.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said the lack of readily available gas will not affect how officers respond to 911 calls. However, CMPD is urging residents to file reports online when possible or call 311 for nonemergencies.

Meanwhile, Charlotte-Area Transit System announced it would provide free transportation while Colonial Pipeline remains shut down. CATS said it is “actively monitoring fuel availability and supply” and is “in close coordination with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management.”

Still, the people who need gasoline for their jobs were starting to be concerned.

Kevin Sturm owns Good Neighbor Lawn Care in Charlotte. He says almost everything he depends on runs on gas. He says he’s stocked up but concerned about how he’s going to keep his business going if the shortage continues past a few days.

“In the next couple of days it’s going to be a matter of getting real tight with the routes, making sure that you cover as many clients as you can with as little driving as possible,” he said.

Matt Peplinsky, the manager of Jet’s Pizza in Charlotte, said no delivery drivers have yet called off of work because they’re out of gas, but they’re planning ahead.

“We want to make sure everyone’s coming to work, but yeah, we might not be able to,” he said.

CMPD Capt. Brad Koch said Wednesday that there is no penalty for hoarding gas, but he hopes drivers won’t take advantage of the situation. CMPD relies on public gas stations to fuel its fleet, but the city of Charlotte also has a public safety emergency reserve police could tap into if necessary.

"We are waiting in lines with people and utilizing the same avenues that our citizens are using," Koch said. "Limit your nonessential travel, only go out if absolutely necessary. And know that there are people — like your local law enforcement and fire department and MEDIC — that it is vital that we have access to those fuel reserves."

Gas shortage
Steve Harrison
There was gasoline at this ExxonMobil in south Charlotte -- but also along line of cars waiting for it.

Koch also encouraged residents to check in with neighbors, especially the elderly, to see if they need essential items to minimize the number of cars on the road.

Although hoarding is not illegal, price gouging at the pumps is. Koch said the gas shortage is creating what is typically seen when severe weather hits — milk, bread and toilet paper are the first to go.

"Similarly to last year at the beginning of the pandemic when all the stores were out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer," Koch said. "I’m confident people still have a lot of hand sanitizer that they will never use. So, do not hoard fuel."

State and federal officials stressed that there is officially no gasoline shortage — just a need to redistribute fuel.

“What you’re feeling is not a lack of supply or a supply issue. What we have is a transportation issue,” said Jeanette McGee, spokeswoman for the AAA auto club. “There is ample supply to fuel the United States for the summer, but what we’re having an issue with is getting it to those gas stations because the pipeline is down.”

However, if the pipeline shutdown continues past the weekend, it could create broader fuel disruptions, officials said.

The national average price for a gallon of gasoline ticked above $3 for the first time since 2016 Wednesday, according to the AAA auto club. Prices begin to rise around this time every year and the AAA auto club said Wednesday that the average price hit $3.008 nationally.

“You go to some states, and you’re going to see much higher increases, especially in the South, because that’s where you’re seeing the largest impact in terms of strain of gasoline, or strain of people,” McGee said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.
Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.
Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal
Catherine Welch is Assistant News Director at WFAE. She has led newsrooms at KUNC in Greely, CO, Rhode Island Public Radio in Providence, RI and WHQR in Wilmington, NC.
Jodie Valade has been a Digital News and Engagement Editor for WFAE since 2019. Since moving to Charlotte in 2015, she has worked as a digital content producer for NASCAR.com and a freelance writer for publications ranging from Charlotte magazine to The Athletic to The Washington Post and New York Times. Before that, Jodie was an award-winning sports features and enterprise reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. She also worked at The Dallas Morning News covering the Dallas Mavericks — where she became Mark Cuban's lifelong email pen pal — and at The Kansas City Star. She has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University and a Master of Education from John Carroll University. She is originally from Rochester Hills, Michigan.