The eve of another busy East Valley workweek became a long night of anxiety Sunday as thousands of drivers lined up for gasoline at the diminishing number of stations that still had fuel.
For this Valley on wheels, it harks back to the almost-forgotten energy crisis of the 1970s — a matter in many cases not of convenience, but of livelihood.
The crisis, which hit the East Valley in earnest late Sunday afternoon, has been building since Aug. 8, when a pipeline that carries the East Valley’s unique blends of gasoline from Tucson to Phoenix was shut down a week after it ruptured.
East Valley stations began running out of some grades of fuel late last week, and by Sunday many were shut down altogether, their lanes blocked by orange pylons or plastic bags covering pump handles. That funneled normal traffic — plus tank-toppers wanting to fill up for the workweek — into the remaining stations that had supplies.
East Valley police departments sent officers for traffic control to some stations and fielded repeated calls from motorists trying to find gas. In Mesa, police patrolling the city called back with tips on where to find gas so dispatchers could relay the information to callers. A Mesa service truck was ready to help drivers who had run out of gas. Super Pumper district manager Kevin Taylor stood outside a station near Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Hayden Road in Scottsdale along with Scottsdale police and directed traffic.
“We'll be out in an hour. We’re doing the best we can,” Taylor said. The station normally gets 9,000 gallons delivered per day. Now that delivery has decreased to every other day.
“Call the governor,” Taylor said.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was in Indianapolis at a meeting of the National Governors’ Association, planned to return early to address the problem, said press secretary Kris Mayes.
Mayes said the Kinder Morgan pipeline company has told the governor’s office that there is “plenty of gas.”
“It looks like a distribution problem,” Mayes said.
One of the customers at Taylor’s station was east Phoenix resident Carlos Herrera, who said he spent seven hours driving looking for gas Sunday afternoon.
“None of the stations in my area have gas,” he said. His was one of more than 25 cars lined up along the road ready to pay $2.05 per gallon.
Nancy and Megan Stacey of north Scottsdale made it “a family affair.” While Nancy waited in line, her daughter also waited in her own car two cars away.
“It's really kind of scary now,” Nancy Stacey said. She recalled gas shortages in the late ’70s when she lived in Massachusetts.
Nataraja K. Rattuhalli, who manages a 7-Eleven at Alma School and Guadalupe roads in Mesa, said lines began forming at his place about 3 p.m.; by late in the evening he was down to about 1,000 gallons of premium, selling it for $2.09 a gallon, and he expected to run out shortly.
At Ruttuhalli’s station, the line was about 10 cars deep onto Alma School Road and he had to block one entrance with cones.
“The situation is crazy because everybody wants gas and they don't know who’s first or second in line,” he said. “People have been yelling at each other and bumping into each other.”
Andrea Gonzalez of Mesa was there filling her Hyundai Elantra and said, “I went to I think eight total stations, and four were closed. But this was the first one I could actually get in line at. The rest were 20 to 40 cars and not moving.”
In Chandler, a police officer tried to direct traffic at Elliot and Alma School roads, where traffic clogged both entrances to a station where Leslie VanBebber works as a night clerk.
The station had just received a 9,000-gallon delivery of regular unleaded and was selling it for $1.89 a gallon. “They told us we won’t get another one tonight. We might get one Monday,” VanBebber said. “People are panicking right now, thinking we won't have gas for a week. The reality is, stations will have gas tomorrow (Monday). They just have to ship it up.”
Gary Rees of Gilbert, also waiting for gas, said, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. One (pipeline) goes and we’ve got this now?”
At a Chevron at Warner and McQueen roads in Gilbert, people waited in line up to two hours about 9 p.m. Sunday; the line was estimated at about a quarter-mile.
Marco Camacho of Chandler said, “We ran out of gas waiting.” He had to push his pickup to the pump.
Several East Valley Chevron stations told the Tribune they expected shipments before this morning’s rush hour.
The gasoline crunch dominated Valley talk radio Sunday night. Jay Lawrence of KTAR (620 AM) spent several hours on the topic and heard reports of near-panic at some stations.
“I’m hearing some bad stories about folks now,” Lawrence said.
Since the rupture, gas has been trucked up from Tucson. AAA Arizona spokeswoman Kim Pappas-Miller has been warning drivers not to panic.
‘‘If people are panic buying, there is no need to panic. There is fuel coming into Arizona at the same amount as two weeks ago. It is just extremely slow,’’ Pappas-Miller said.
‘‘People are mistaking slow distribution with a fear that we are running out of gas, and that is not happening at all.’’
Executives from Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, the company that operates the pipeline, met with federal regulators Thursday in Houston, where their plan to test the line for safety and fix the rupture was approved.
The pipeline is now undergoing testing to make sure it can withstand the pressure of the gas when it is operating again.
Because there aren’t any gasoline refineries in Arizona, all gas must be imported. Kinder Morgan of Houston, which operates two lines, fills the demand.
One line delivers 70 percent of the gasoline used by Phoenix motorists from California. The damaged pipeline that runs between Tucson and Phoenix carries both the California gas and gas from El Paso, Texas, which makes up the other 30 percent of the fuel used by motorists here.
The pipeline first came under scrutiny after part of it ruptured in Tucson on July 30, causing about 12,000 gallons of gas to leak, Pappas-Miller said.
The Arizona Corporation Commission, which oversees pipeline safety, is expecting to have an investigation into the line break finished within two months, said spokeswoman Heather Murphy.
- Tribune writers Jim Ripley, Rosa Cirianni, Chris Coppola, Troy Emenecker and Lorraine Whetstone contributed to this report.