By Sal Risalvato
Like everyone, I was shocked at the devastation from Hurricane Sandy. We are now beginning to reach the point in the recovery process where we must look back at what happened during and after the storm to try and learn what we can do better and how we can prepare for the next major disaster.
Several people, including a few of our state legislators, are openly discussing and have already prepared legislation to submit, mandating that gas stations be equipped with backup generators sufficient to operate their business even during widespread and prolonged power outages.
The first thing people should know is that, even if every single gas station in this state had been equipped with backup generator power before Hurricane Sandy, the gas crisis we faced afterward would have been identically as bad.
The problem wasn’t so much the lack of power; it was the lack of gasoline supply getting to the stations. Not long after the storm passed, I was contacted by PSE&G, who wanted to work with the governor’s office and me to prioritize restoring power to the gas stations with gasoline in their storage tanks and alleviate the lines that were forming all over. PSE&G kept me informed as they restored power to each of the gas stations that I had identified.
What happened next? The station would get power and sell out their entire inventory in a few hours, and then close back up because they couldn’t get a resupply of fuel, sometimes for days. I know of stations that didn’t receive a delivery for more than a week. The storm damage to the refineries and terminals where the delivery trucks fill up was severe enough to knock them out of commission for some time. If every gas station had a generator, or never lost power, they all would have sold out their inventory quickly, and all closed back up until being resupplied.
It’s also critically important to consider that gas station pumps require a tremendous amount of energy to operate. You can’t just go down to the local hardware store and buy a generator for a few hundred bucks and expect to operate the station. Properly equipping a service station with backup generators would be an investment between $10,000 and $30,000. These gas stations are small businesses that typically only make a few cents a gallon on their gasoline. They simply can’t afford to spend that kind of money, especially considering that they would have wound up in pretty much the same position with a generator as they would have been without one – not being able to sell gas to customers.
Unfortunately, I fear that unless the Legislature can outlaw hurricanes altogether, there isn’t anything that could have been done to prevent the temporary gas outages we faced recently. Even if every gas station had its own miniature nuclear power plant installed, it still wouldn’t have eliminated the gas lines. I applaud Senate President (Stephen) Sweeney and Senate Minority Leader (Thomas) Kean for stating publicly that they realized the ineffectiveness of mandating that gas stations purchase generators.
I too deeply desire to solve this problem and make sure that we never have to experience something like this again. My members too want to ensure that another crisis never happens again. You can imagine their frustration at the thought that their customers are literally lining up for their product, only for them to be unable to serve them.
I am confident that we will be able to craft legislation that is fair to the small business and the consumer.
Sal Risalvato is the executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, Convenience, Automotive Association (NJGCA).