Low on gas

The sign says it all.

NEW YORK — Super storm Sandy left a trail of destruction and despair in the US northeast, but it also exposed a surprising fault line in the ability of gasoline stations to keep fuel flowing.

Motorists in New York and New Jersey, desperate for gas amid constrained supply and power outages, spent hours in snaking lines waiting for a chance to hit the pumps. But those who rushed to stations bearing the names of the world’s biggest and best known oil companies were the least likely to find fuel.

It came down to one critical factor: the outlets of the oil majors are franchised, while those of the regional chains are company-run and benefited from the full resources of their corporate parents.

Three days after Sandy hit the Northeast, triggering the region’s worst oil crisis since the 1970s, less than a quarter of the service stations operating under the Exxon Mobil Corp., BP and Shell names were selling gasoline, according to a Reuters analysis of industry data. The companies say the figures are higher, closer to half.

But a handful of medium-sized regional chains like Hess Corp., Wawa Inc. and Sunoco performed far better, with as many as three-quarters of their stations operating, using back-up generators to dispense fuel to millions of motorists, homeowners and utility crews.

The vast power outages across the Northeast left thousands of stations unable to dispense fuel from their electric pumps for a week or longer, but the new analysis, based on data from leading retail intelligence firm OPIS, shows how hidden factors deepened the crisis.

Oil stations branded by the three big oil companies make up a third of the market in the New York City area, the data shows, but over the past decade they have been franchised out to individual operators who enjoy little support from the multibillion-dollar majors whose name they bear.

When Sandy hit, they were largely left stranded, with no easy means to hire the big generators needed to power fuel pumps. But at the other firms crisis teams swung into action, hiring dozens of units to get fuel flowing again.

“We have a detailed crisis plan, whether it be a big Nor’easter or a hurricane,” said John Poplawski, head of the emergency response team at Wawa, a regional convenience store and gasoline retailer.

Many franchise owners would not have been able to run back-up power easily anyway – they are not required by law to install the necessary plug-ins, a fact that came as news to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. (Reuters)

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