• U.S.

SHORTAGES: Gas Fever: Happiness Is a Full Tank

4 minute read

Housewives in hair curlers knit sweaters at the wheels of then-station wagons in the predawn blackness of Miami. Young couples in Manhattan, armed with sandwiches and hot chocolate, invite friends along for an evening of gasoline shopping. Connecticut executives regale each other with lurid tales of mile-long queues and two-hour waits at the pump. Otherwise sane citizens are in the cold grip of the nation’s newest obsession: gasoline fever.

As supplies tighten in many parts of the country, people are wondering where their next gallon is coming from. Motorists are cruising the streets in search of a place to top off their tanks. As a result, the nation’s 117 million vehicles have become rolling reservoirs of gasoline, making the shortage worse. “I know I need only a quarter of a tank to fill up,” said a housewife in Westchester County, N.Y., as she awaited her turn at the pump. “I feel guilty about it, but I can’t help myself.” For millions of Americans, happiness is a full tank of gas.

The full-tank syndrome is bringing out the worst in both buyers and sellers of that volatile fluid. When a motorist in Pittsburgh topped off his tank with only 110 worth and then tried to pay for it with a credit card, the pump attendant spat in his face. A driver in Bethel, Conn., and another in Neptune, N.J., last week escaped serious injury when their cars were demolished by passenger trains as they sat stubbornly in lines that stretched across railroad tracks. “These people are like animals foraging for food,” says Don Jacobson, who runs an Amoco station in Miami. “If you can’t sell them gas, they’ll threaten to beat you up, wreck your station, run over you with a car.” Laments Bob Graves, a Lexington, Mass., Texaco dealer: “They’ve broken my pump handles and smashed the glass on the pumps, and tried to start fights when we close. We’re all so busy at the pumps that somebody walked in and stole my adding machine and the leukemia-fund can.”

Rationing Plans. To help minimize such madness, officials in Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, B.C., Bade County, Fla., and other areas last week adopted Oregon-type rationing schemes that will allow motorists with even-numbered license plates to buy gas on even-numbered dates, and those with odd-numbered plates to buy on odd-numbered dates. Some states have begun requiring a $3 minimum purchase.

Gasoline fever appears to be worst in the Northeast, Florida and Arizona. But a few places-Texas, the Beep South and the Great Plains states-are virtually awash with gasoline. Some reasons for the disparity:

> Areas that were greatly dependent on imported oil, notably the Northeast, have been hit especially hard by the Arab embargo. The U.S. normally needs 7 million to 8 million bbl. of imported oil and petroleum products daily, but imports are down to some 5 million bbl. a day.

> Many oil companies have been closing their older, smaller and less profitable stations. The closings appear to be most severe in urban areas and least severe in smaller communities near new interstate highways.

>Some cities that are particularly close to refineries and oilfields, like Houston, or have better than average distribution faculties, like Atlanta, tend to get petroleum supplies quicker than less well-located metropolitan areas. The Midwest is well supplied by pipelines from Canada.

> States where there were plenty of independent gasoline marketers (firms that do not have their own refineries) are hurting now that many of the independents have been forced out of business because they cannot find refineries to sell to them.

The Federal Energy Office may increase gasoline allocations within the next month or two for areas that are particularly dry. Energy officials say that if service-station lines get too long, national gasoline rationing will finally be imposed. FEO Chief William Simon is still publicly opposed to rationing, but aides say that he is willing to accept it if the gasoline shortage gets much farther out of hand. The Administration will not.

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