The one-two punch of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma has sent gas prices spiraling upward across South Carolina.
And, while both storms have passed, the combination of a temporarily shrunken gas supply and a spike in driving across the Southeast could keep prices inflated for some time.
“It could be (high) through the end of the month, maybe October,” said Tiffany Wright with AAA Carolinas. “It’s been very sporadic all over the Carolinas.”
Gas prices in South Carolina have jumped 25 percent since the end of August, about the time Harvey made landfall, according to GasBuddy.com. In two weeks, the price spiked to $2.51 a gallon for regular gas on Sept. 5 from $2.04 on Aug. 22.
The next day, South Carolina declared a state of emergency and the average jumped up another 5 cents a gallon. On Wednesday, the statewide average was down slightly — to $2.54.
2 factors: Harvey’s destruction, Irma’s panic
Gas analysts say two factors played into rising gas prices, which hit an average high of $2.56 on Monday:
▪ Disruption to Texas oil production and transport facilities caused by Harvey two weeks ago
▪ Panicked gas buying locally caused by the approach of Irma
“First, Harvey shut down production facilities, then you had the situation with the pipeline,” Wright said.
On Aug. 30, the Colonial Pipeline, one of the main suppliers of refined Texas gas to the East Coast, had to suspend operations temporarily in the aftermath of Harvey, further restricting supply.
Then, S.C. drivers started filling up — ahead of the approaching Irma – and drivers from Florida and Georgia began pouring into the Palmetto State to escape the storm’s path.
“I think you saw more tank topping, but evacuees were also filling up,” said Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com.
In evacuations, gas consumption can jump from 25 percent to 50 percent above normal, DeHaan said.
Drivers leaving, then going back
Both out-of-state drivers and South Carolinians were pouring onto the state’s roads.
When Gov. Henry McMaster issued a partial evacuation order for the S.C. coast last Friday, state Transportation Department monitoring stations reported big increases in traffic.
▪ On Interstate 95 in Dorchester County, a monitoring station recorded 71,440 vehicles on that road, versus 44,355 on the equivalent Friday a year earlier.
▪ On Interstate 26 in Orangeburg County, a station recorded 69,207 vehicles the same day, versus 63,816 a year before.
▪ On Tuesday, after the storm had passed, the same station on I-26 recorded 11,565 vehicles headed west, toward Columbia, but 46,367 headed east to I-95 and the coast.
▪ That same day, the station on I-95 saw 2,342 vehicles headed north, but 12,814 headed toward the Lowcountry, Georgia and Florida.
All that travel helped spike gas prices.
(And Columbia-area hotel bookings. Those bookings were up 28 percent Friday, compared to the year before, and up 26 percent on Saturday, according to Experience Columbia, SC.)
‘No incentive’ for prices to go down?
Gas prices “should start coming down over the next few days,” analyst DeHaan says. But, he added, “There could be localized conditions that prevent it from going down.”
Wright thinks prices could stay stubbornly high because travel remains high.
“There’s no incentive for it to go down because demand is still up,” Wright said, predicting prices could stay high at least through the end of the week.
While Irma didn’t disrupt gas production, the chaos in the Sunshine State still could have a ripple effect across the Southeast.
“Any time you have a natural disaster, whether it threatens the supply or not, you see the price go up,” Wright said.
“Don’t expect it to come down as quickly as it went up.”
S.C. gas prices soar
The average price of a gallon of unleaded gas in South Carolina
Wednesday: $2.54, 11 cents a gallon low than the U.S. average
A week ago: $2.53, 14 cents lower than the national average
A month ago: $2.08, 27 cents lower than the national average
A year ago: $1.91, 27 cents lower than the national average