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Diesel fuel 'shortage' not really that

By Ward Morehouse IIIStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 1980



New York

Scattered shortages of diesel fuel -- used by trucks, buses, railroad engines , farm equipment, and a growing number of autos -- have been reported throughout the United States.

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But the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, an independent organization serving many US oil companies, says diesel stocks are plentiful.

Why the disparity?

It is the result of "profound" changes in fuel delivery systems, says Daniel Lundberg, publisher of the Lundberg Letter, a widely respected oil industry newsletter. He says there is more than enough home heating oil on hand, because of the comparatively mild winter, and much of that fuel is virtually interchangeable with diesel.

But the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO) and other organizations serving the trucking industry say truckers can't get enough diesel fuel.

When gasoline and diesel fuel were mor plentiful, Mr. Lundberg explains, it took only a phone call from a retail dealer to get immediate delivery of whatever he needed. But with the appearances of shortages, this entire delivery system changed.

The more sporadic, but frequent, fuel deliveries of the past have given way to more tightly scheduled and less-frequent deliveries, Mr. Lunderberg says. Thus, while gasoline and diesel fuel stocks are high and actual shortages virtually nonexistent, lines in California, New York, New Jersey, and other states have not altogether disappeared.

Ironically, the high prices of diesel fuel and, to some extent, gasoline, also are contributing to the lack of availability in some cases, he says. Typically, truckers try to buy diesel at the best price, especially those who drive their own rigs, and the "low-priced" stations are likely to run out the sonnest. Truckers accustomed to buying their fuel at these stops are more likely to find the pumps temporarily closed than in the past.

According to the American trucking Association (ATA) in Washington, the price of diesel fuel has shot up from a nationwide average last Dec. 1 of $1.02 a gallon to nearly $1.11 a gallon as of Feb. 19 -- a jump that approximates and, in some instances, exceeds the dramatic rise in gasoline prices.

A major reason why diesel prices -- generally a good deal lower than gasoline prices -- now are often going up faster than gasoline prices -- now are often going up faster than gasoline is that diesel prices are not "controlled" by the US Department of Energy (DOE) the way prices for gasoline are at the retail level.

But Lorraine Woehrle, a spokesman for the NATSO, says. "The truck stop operators are not getting enough [diesel] to sell."

She also maintains that "there is almost an instinctive feeling that something is bound to happen this summer" -- meaning that much more severe shortages may occur.

Last spring and summer, truckers and bus companies were as pinched by fuel shortages as a large percentage of the nation's motorists. Many truckers took their rigs off the road to protest both the unavailability and the high price of diesel fuel.

In a subsequent report, the DOE blamed its own regulations -- not the Iranian oil cutoff -- for a large portion of the shortage last spring.

This year a major increase in mass transportation ridership may add to shortages. Trailways Inc. reports that bus ridership, apart from charters,was up by more than 600,000 people from 1979 over 1978 -- and the trend is continuing.