Fuel Costs Rise with Barge Loss
by Matthew Weaver
Capital Press, December 9, 2010
Only small pockets of shortages expected, if any
Fuel prices in eastern Washington and Oregon and parts of Idaho are expected to increase as lock repairs halt barge traffic on the Columbia-Snake river system.
State and industry officials say prices may remain high into the spring, but they don't know how high.
Mark Anderson, Washington Department of Commerce senior energy policy specialist, said it's not absolutely certain what the $48.7 million river project's impact will be, since such an undertaking has never before been attempted.
He said the 1.47 million gallons of gasoline and diesel transported by barge per day to eastern Oregon, Washington and parts of Idaho will be difficult to replace. Besides truck and railroad, the Yellowstone pipeline from Billings, Mont., to Moses Lake, Wash., and the Chevron pipeline from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Pasco, Wash., also supply petroleum products to the region.
Deanna Henry, emergency preparedness manager for the Oregon Department of Energy, said the petroleum industry has been preparing for the closure for about a year.
"They do not expect any extended shortages," she said. "There might be some isolated pockets of shortages, but nothing so severe that industry can't manage."
A price increase for fuel is definitely expected, Henry said. "How high, no one's willing to say."
"The one thing disruption of the barge traffic can't do is lower the price," Tim Hamilton, executive director of the Automotive United Trades Organization, a trade organization of gasoline dealers and wholesalers, said. "It's the cheapest way of getting fuel there."
Fuel distributors have been stocking up as the lock closure approached.
Tidewater Barge Lines, which operates on the Columbia and Snake rivers, tied up six barges holding a total of 9.5 million gallons of refined petroleum products near the Pasco distribution terminal to augment the supply. That fuel is expected to last three weeks.
Tidewater spokesperson Carol Bua said the company saw an increase in business in the weeks leading up to the closure but now barges will be limited to the Columbia River below The Dalles.
"It's just a matter of letting the Corps of Engineers get to work, get the system put back together and start looking toward resuming normal operations as quickly as possible," John Piggott, Tidewater assistant to the president, said.
Anderson said the Army Corps has been communicating with farmers for 16 months. Most growers have already shipped their grain ahead of time or are holding it until the closure is past, he said.
"They probably have done everything they can," he said. "But if they have options to allow themselves some backup supplies, it seems like this would be a good time."
For some farmers, that raises the question of storage, and whether they have to buy fuel or blend additives to keep it from gelling during the winter, Hamilton said.
"If I was a farmer, I don't know that I would do anything but sit back, take my licking and keep on ticking," he said. "There's risks in buying fuel at this time; it's totally speculative."
Lock repair project on schedule
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said that repairs to navigation locks on the Columbia-Snake River system are on schedule.
The Portland, Ore., and Walla Walla, Wash., districts are replacing the huge gates that allow barges to pass around The Dalles and John Day dams on the Columbia River and the Lower Monumental dam on the Snake River.
Three other locks, at McNary, Ice Harbor and Little Goose dams, will be inspected or repaired during the closure.
Weather hasn't affected work at The Dalles or John Day, said Scott Clemans, public affairs specialist for the Portland district.
Time is built into the schedules for weather problems, Clemans said.
Gina Baltrusch, public affairs for the Walla Walla district of the corps, said the weather closed roads to the dams for two days and delayed a subcontractor, but crews worked through the weekend to get back on schedule.
The Lower Monumental navigation lock is scheduled to reopen March 13. The Dalles and John Day dams are scheduled to reopen March 18.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs