The Fuel Shortage and Its Risks, Explained

As you might have seen, people are in a panic. Looming gas shortages have spun people into the only logical next step: hoard gasoline. We’re not really going to tackle those problems, but what is alarming is the images of people improperly storing flammable liquids. While this is obvious to most, and if you’re reading this you’re probably not the culprit, gasoline is incredibly dangerous if handled incorrectly.

Talking with Brad Jenkins, the senior vice president of supply and distribution for Pilot Flying J, we tried to get the best advice about how to most safely move that bundle of excess gasoline from the pump to wherever you’re going to store it. Jenkins says, “there are approved containers that people use in our facilities all the time. They’re vented. They’re made of the proper materials. A plastic bag is an extremely bad idea.”

When asked about what safety measures you should consider when transferring or storing gasoline, Jenkins notes, “Well, there’s really no hope for the person that put it in a plastic bag. First of all, gasoline is corrosive and is going to eat through that bag relatively quickly… Even transferring from an approved container to a car’s gas tank requires some sort of pour spout, and so what happens is you introduce vapors that come off the gasoline that enter the atmosphere.

“When you go to the store, the fuel is forced into the tank and you vent very little of the vapors back into the atmosphere because it’s captured in the gas tank underground. Well, you don’t have those options when you’re using a gas can: even if it’s approved. So you’ve just introduced an element of risk. So, going back to the fire triangle: Oxygen, you can’t remove oxygen, fuel has vapors that will ignite with an ignition source. Please don’t do it smoking because that would be insanity, but make sure you’re not around any ignition points.

People don’t even sometimes realize where they are. In many garages across the U.S., you have a water heater that has a pilot light in it. There’s an ignition source, and all it takes is those vapors to hit that pilot light and voilà: you have a fire. So stay away from any potential ignition sources. And use the gas station, because that’s the best place to get gas.”

Storing gas, that’s another matter. “It depends on where you store it. If you store it in a warm environment, say you’re in the south, in the summer and its 90-90, 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity, some of the light ends in the gasoline will start to boil off, which is okay if the container is vented, because what would happen is it (the container) would pressure up. Because gasoline, diesel fluid all expand under heat. So, when that happens you want it to be vented to let what air or vapors out. If it’s venting vapors, you definitely don’t want an ignition source nearby causing an issue.

“When we think about hydrocarbons or fuel, there are three elements that need to exist for a fire: one is a fuel source, two is oxygen and three is an ignition source. When you bring those three things together you’re going to have a problem. And I think people get numb to the fact that when gasoline is outside of an approved container or approved transmission pipeline when it gets out into the open air: you have two of those sources and all it takes is an ignition source to have a problem.

“It’s all about how the gasoline gets from the refinery to the consumer,” Jenkins says. “There are a number of ways that they can: it can be by pipeline, it can be by truck, it can be by railcar, it can be by barge, it can be by ship. So, there are lots of different ways to move gasoline, diesel fuel, etc from a production facility to the ultimate consumer. When you look at the United States, about 65 percent of the production capacity is in the Gulf Coast. So you have a really big pipeline system that runs from basically Houston, Gulf Coast area, all the way up to New Jersey and there are many terminals, which are just like fuel banks, along that the way that it just drops fuel off.”

Jenkins says the fuel system is quite efficient. “This pipeline has six cycles, which means they pump six times a month, and so that would tell you that at any given time if you’re absolutely full, you’ll have six days of supply. So, if you shut down a pipeline for six days, one-sixth of that capacity, of that supply, is now gone. And there are not six days of supply, because what happens is on these cycles you’ve got to drop your inventory down so that the tank will have enough room for the new incoming product to come in every six days. There isn’t this massive amount of storage anywhere in the U.S., other than Houston, the Gulf Coast, where you’re really close to a refinery and when you look at the southeast, there are not that many refineries to be able to satisfy the demand. So thus, you have this pipeline system.

“Now think about this pipeline system, it pumps 100,000 barrels an hour. So, in a 24 hour period: 2.4 million barrels. If you then stop that and bring trucks in, trucks haul 200 barrels. Trucks cannot keep up with pipelines… In a nutshell, that’s what happened. There’s just not enough inventory laying around when you a disruption like that to markets that are that dependent on the pipeline.”

To people trying to hoard gasoline, Jenkins says, “If you’re putting it in a plastic bag, I don’t know really what else to say. That kind of speaks for itself. The pipeline is back up and running, so it will get better. The last two days have probably been the worst two days, but as the pipeline continues to run and working stocks continue to build: we’re going to get out of this. If you haven’t already, it’s probably not worth it. You’re just going to have to figure out what you’re going to use that gas for later. I would say at this point if you haven’t: I wouldn’t start.”

Have you encountered anyone hoarding gasoline? Let us know in the comments below.

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