A superstorm Sandy legacy: Gas pumps that work when power is out

New York will become the first state to store gasoline for use during emergencies, and it also now requires certain gas stations to have backup electricity. One year after superstorm Sandy, New Jersey, too, is moving to ensure that service stations are always powered up.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Customers wait in line for fuel at a Hess gas station in Brooklyn, New York, Nov. 9, 2012. One year ago, superstorm Sandy left tens of thousands of motorists scrambling to find a working gasoline pump.

One year after superstorm Sandy left tens of thousands of motorists scrambling to find a working gasoline pump, the governors of New York and New Jersey are trying to ensure that the region’s service stations will be powered up and supplied with fuel should another disaster strike.

This weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that New York would be the first state in the nation to maintain a strategic gasoline reserve, saying it would prevent the kind of supply shortage that caused long lines and frayed nerves at gas stations after last year's storm. The pilot program will store about 3 million gallons of gasoline for emergency vehicles and motorists in Long Island in the event of a similar crisis.

New York also became the third state to require that gas stations maintain backup power. This summer, state lawmakers approved a bill requiring almost half the gas stations in New York City, on Long Island, and in other downstate communities to install emergency switches to wire up with nearby backup power generators. By next April, strategically located stations within a half-mile of highway exits or evacuation routes must be connected to a backup generator within 24 hours of a declared emergency.

“The gap in gasoline supplies during superstorm Sandy was incredibly disruptive to the daily routines of New Yorkers who needed to get to school and work as well as the operations of businesses during an already difficult time,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement this weekend. The state’s efforts “will make our energy infrastructure stronger and better prepared than it ever was before.”

Similar bills in New Jersey, however, have stalled after opposition from business groups. Yet last week, Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced his own initiative, securing $7 million in federal grants for New Jersey service stations near the state’s evacuation routes, allowing them to voluntarily install backup power. Gasoline pumps are powered by electricity, so they are knocked out of service whenever there's a blackout.

In Florida, long lines and similar frustrations after hurricane Wilma in 2005 prompted state legislators to pass a law requiring service stations near highways and evacuation routes to have access to backup power for at least 72 hours after a disaster. Louisiana also passed a law after Katrina, requiring all new or rebuilt gas stations near hurricane areas to have access to backup power in case of an outage. 

In the weeks following Sandy’s ravages, images of frustrated motorists idling in lines often hundreds of vehicles long came to define much of the aftermath. Amid fist fights and gas hoarding, police had to maintain order while officials were forced to ration fuel for drivers in the most densely populated metropolis in America.

This put gas stations in the spotlight, and a number of lawmakers quickly tried to attach their names to legislation requiring all gas pumps to have backup power.

But retail gas stations have felt unfairly targeted by such laws – one reason New Jersey legislators have not taken action.

“We had several concerns as this new policy was being shaped,” says Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, a lobbying group in Albany, N.Y. “One was that we were concerned about an overreaction.... We didn't believe that every gas station needed to be equipped with a generator…. And not only would it be overkill, it would be expensive for small business owners, especially mom and pop gas stations and convenience stores.”

While the initial power outages had indeed kept many stations from pumping the fuel they still had in their underground tanks, the storm had also knocked out many of the region’s supply arteries. After a day or two of long lines, many stations simply had no fuel – even though they were the public face for frustrations over the fuel shortages.

"We did not have a gas shortage. We had enough gas to fill every station, swimming pool and bathtub in New Jersey,” said Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, C-Store and Automotive Association, to the Asbury Park Press. "We had a gas delivery crisis. All those big storage tanks you see on the New Jersey Turnpike – we had no way of getting it to the points of service.”

Mr. Calvin says New York's lawmakers assured him that backup requirements for wholesale terminals would be forthcoming – although tackling the region’s distribution infrastructure is a much more complex and politically difficult task.

“We felt strongly, and we still do, that if certain gas stations at the retail level are going to be required to have backup power arrangements, then so should the wholesale motor fuel terminals,” says Calvin. “[That's] because a lot of them were out of gas, either because the refinery shut down or the pipelines are shut down, or because those terminals had been damaged or they were without power. So our position was, if this is going to be done, then it should be done at all levels of the supply chain.”

But his trade group was satisfied with the new requirements, especially because the law also provided $17 million for gas stations to upgrade and be backup-ready.

“If the state feels that backup power is critical enough that we’re going to mandate it, then the state should offset our costs,” Calvin says. “So we were satisfied with the final legislation that was passed and is now in the process of being implemented.”

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