Gregg Laskoski is a senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com
With the nation squarely focused on yesterday's election, it's easy to be distracted away from the urgent problems facing thousands of New York and New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy. Death. Destruction. Homelessness. Power outages. Shortages of food, water, gasoline. After President Barack Obama made his visit and promised help in any way necessary, FEMA assistance was all but invisible, prompting former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to say that FEMA's response in New York has been no better than it was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, for which it was lambasted.
But, there was one thing the federal government did right—post Sandy—that many of us may have overlooked. It issued a temporary blanket waiver last week of the Jones Act, which will allow foreign-flagged vessels (oil tankers coming up from the Gulf of Mexico) to help expedite gasoline to the Northeast. It's important to note that gasoline supply in the Northeast was fairly tight even before Sandy with Northeast refineries operating only at 81.8 percent of capacity during the week ending October 24, according to the Energy Information Administration.
As expected, the week ending October 31 showed Northeastern refineries taking preemptive steps prior to Sandy's arrival, running at only 81 percent of capacity. One of the largest refineries in New Jersey—the Phillips 66 Bayway, N.J. plant with a 238,000 barrels per day capacity—lost power for several days, and another plant—Hess refinery in Port Reading—that did regain power still remains idle.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the waiver of the Jones Act was because "the administration's highest priority is ensuring the health and safety of those impacted by Hurricane Sandy and to remove a potential obstacle to bringing additional fuel to the storm-damaged region." The waiver expires November 13.
It's encouraging to see the federal government use all of the tools at its disposal because just eight months ago, when retail prices soared as the Northeast was in danger of losing refining capacity to potential plant closures in Philadelphia, it elected to do nothing.
Strange how the nearness of elections can inspire action.