The current gas crisis is worse than the 2005 shortages after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, say some experts.
The effects of hurricane Ike largely emptied two critical gasoline pipelines that feed much of the South, leading to widespread panic-buying, shuttered pumps, and even some fistfights as motorists vied for precious drops of gas from Anniston, Ala., to Asheville, N.C.
That's because the widespread flooding and power outages that shut down 15 Houston-area refineries are not the only reasons why some 75 percent of gas stations in the region have plastic bags over their pump handles.
Getting supplies back on track has been made more difficult by more perennial problems – a shortage of regional refineries, an energy policy that demands nearly 200 boutique fuels to meet air quality standards, and a tangled middleman distribution system of gasoline "jobbers" seen as a weak link in the government's ability to control the economy's critical fuel link.
"The whole situation does point up the need for additional refining capacity in the country," says Ray Perryman, a Waco, Tex.-based energy economist, in an e-mail. "Even in a time of moderating demand, we do not have the ability to overcome even the interruptions that are inevitable. I am not sure I would call the frailties new, but they have certainly been brought into sharp focus."
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