Fuel shortage among priorities in Louisiana’s hurricane recovery

Leaders hope to leverage political weight as pumps run dry across region after Hurricane Ida

By: - September 1, 2021 7:57 pm
Shell's Norco refinery releases 'elevated emissions' due to Hurricane Ida

Shell’s Norco refinery in St. Charles Parish spews heavy emissions on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, after Hurricane Ida flooded the plant and disabled operations, exacerbating a fuel shortage in Southeast Louisiana. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

More than two-thirds of Louisiana’s petrochemical refining capacity remained offline Wednesday due to damages from Hurricane Ida , Gov. John Bel Edwards said.

The effects were visible across Southeast Louisiana with not only long lines of cars waiting to fill up at gas stations but also with the unusually heavy plumes of black emissions spewing from refineries in St. Charles, East Baton Rouge, St. John the Baptist and other areas.

Shell’s Norco refinery has been experiencing “elevated flaring” since Ida caused unspecified damages to the plant on Sunday, Shell spokesperson Cindy Babski said in an email.  According to the American Petroleum Institute, “elevated flaring” is a procedure in which plants burn off excess chemicals and gasses before or after imminent disasters.

Motorists traveling from Baton Rouge to New Orleans this week may have noticed a long dark cloud hanging low in the sky and stretching across the Bonnet Carre Spillway to a point at which it starts to fade above Lake Pontchartrain in Jefferson Parish. The cloud begins at the flare stacks at Shell Norco and the adjacent Valero refinery on U.S. Highway 90. Valero did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

“We are still assessing the impact of Ida on our Louisiana assets that were shut down late last week in anticipation of Ida,” Babski said. “Shell Norco and Shell Geismar have essential personnel on site to ensure around-the-clock safety and security as well as to provide ongoing assessments of the storm’s impact. It’s still too early to know when we will resume full operations.”

Many residents trying to evacuate Southeast Louisiana have found few gasoline stations have reopened since they don’t have enough fuel supplies to meet the demand. In towns as far away as McComb, Mississippi, just north of Tangipahoa Parish, lines of vehicles stretched for blocks as desperate motorists tried to refuel. Some gas stations in McComb were forced to close after their pumps ran dry, according to the McComb Enterprise-Journal. 

Those open in Southeast Louisiana, such as the Chevron gas station at the foot of the Causeway Bridge, caused traffic backups along Causeway Boulevard and West Esplanade Avenue for the entire afternoon Tuesday, requiring sheriff’s deputies to direct traffic at the location.

Cars wait for fuel on Paris Avenue and Pleasure Street in New Orleans on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of William Mathurin)

Nearly 96% of offshore oil production and 94% of offshore natural gas production has also been halted due to the hurricane. Louisiana supplies about 13% of the nation’s refining capacity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, though the nation’s fuel supply has not been significantly disrupted by the storm. Edwards called on other states for assistance.

“We need fuel to be brought in before the refineries come back up on their own because right now we don’t know when that’s going to be,” the governor said at a Wednesday news conference. “Now we need the rest of the country to give up a little bit of their fuel to come back to Louisiana so we can deal with this hurricane and get our recovery started the way that it should.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said he plans to appeal to the private sector to get more fuel into the region. He said he has a phone conference scheduled Wednesday evening with all the major refineries across the nation to ask them for help.

The governor and Louisiana’s congressional delegation are also asking President Joe Biden, who is scheduled to visit here Friday, to take action to relieve, among other things, the fuel crunch in Southeast Louisiana.  

The president “certainly” has the ability, not only through the Department of Energy and other federal agencies, to assist with the lack of fuel, Edwards said.

“He can pick up the phone and he can call and make sure that the private sector companies can help as well,” Edwards said.

The state will remain dependent on external fuel sources until the gargantuan task of restoring electricity ramps up in the impacted areas. 

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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