Digging a deeper hole'

Charlotte, N.C., retailers anticipate continued gas-price increases

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte-area gasoline prices will rise and remain high for up to another month because of the slow restart of refineries shut down in Hurricane Rita, convenience store owners and government officials said Wednesday, according to a report in the Charlotte Observer.

Prices could reach the $3.40s within a couple of weeks, said Peter Sodini, president of the Sanford, N.C.-based Pantry convenience store chain. "It is unbelievably ugly," he said about supplies. "Every week we dig a deeper hole."

At an average [image-nocss] of $3.10 for a gallon of regular gas, Charlotte drivers already are paying a dime or more for gas than motorists in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, according to AAA data. Charlotte prices are up 68% from a year ago; the national average is 52% higher.

The Carolinas get almost all of their gas from the Gulf Coast, which has been hit by two hurricanes in less than a month. Oil companies have used gas that was in pipelines and storage tanks before Rita pummeled the Texas-Louisiana coasts Sept. 24.

Now there's a race to get fuel into pipelines from refineries to fill emptying storage tanks, said Mark Burdette, an economist with the U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration. The rub: Eight refineries are shut down after Rita and another four remain closed from damage by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, the Energy Department said Wednesday. "We're going to live close to the edge for ... weeks," Burdette said.

In the 10 days after Rita, oil companies were able to give area stations enough gas to stay open and keep prices from $3 to $3.20. But stations are receiving a smaller portion of regular deliveries. The Pantry is getting 75%; Sam's Mart, a Charlotte-based convenience store chain, about half.

Full recovery could take monthsthe length of time needed to get all the closed refineries running again, said Bill Weatherspoon, executive director for the North Carolina Petroleum Council, a trade group representing oil companies.

Sodini and Sam's Mart head Sami Nafisi said gas supplies have dwindled to levels not seen since Katrina. After that storm, two major pipelines supplying all of Charlotte's gas were down for three days. About a third of the city's stations closed and prices reached $3.50 a gallon and more during a binge of panic buying.