By Russ and Tiña De Maris
This week the media was full of dire warnings that RVers and other motor fuel users could see fuel pumps shut down by gas shortages. Will fuel shortages hit your RV tank, cutting your trip plans short? Well, there’s some truth to the news – and on the other hand, it may be blown out of proportion.
First, the facts
Here are the facts: First, there is plenty of motor fuel in the pipeline, both gasoline and diesel. During the pandemic there was actually an oil glut – so much so that at one point, crude oil prices went into the negative side of the ledger. At that time, theoretically, oil owners were paying to have the black stuff hauled away. With the COVID-19 scare tamping down, more folks are back on the road, the glut is gone, and fuel prices are predictably heading back up.
During Spring Break, some “hot” vacation spots saw some gas stations with shut-down pumps. What gives? Yes, plenty of fuel in the pipeline. The problem was, while there was no shortage of fuel, there was a shortage of fuel delivery drivers. That’s where the screaming headlines are coming from. How did this all come about?
Once again, COVID-19 is partially responsible. Driving a fuel tanker requires more than just a CDL (commercial driver’s license). Due to the hazardous nature of fuel, a special endorsement beyond a CDL is required and special training to go along with it. When COVID-19 rolled in, many truck driving schools shut down due to fear of passing along the illness. One industry source tells RVtravel.com that some 40% of classes were shut down. Even now, 20% of the nation’s truck driving schools are still closed down.
Add to the present issue, COVID also put a big crimp on fuel demand. At the height of the pandemic, a huge percentage of America’s drivers stayed home, or drastically curtailed their driving. That led to the earlier-mentioned fuel and oil glut. With stations selling way less fuel, far fewer deliveries were needed. Fewer deliveries meant tanker drivers were idled. The average age of truck drivers today is 55. When some of these older, certified tanker drivers got sidelined, some took it as a nudge from above to retire. With schools out of session, that made replacing those drivers all the more difficult.
Don’t blame COVID for everything. Uncle Sam is also cracking down on unsafe drivers. Last year a new system of tracking drivers who failed drug tests came online. Some 60,000 CDL-carrying drivers were recorded, and many of them simply didn’t do what was needed to clear themselves to drive again. Of those, it’s impossible to tell just how many were tanker-certified drivers; but, without a doubt, some were.
“I don’t believe the majority of Americans will have any problems finding gasoline this summer.”
If it all sounds like the perfect blend for a fuel shortage, based on a lack of delivery drivers, you’re right. BUT, says one fuel industry expert, don’t expect your RV travels will be cramped beyond movement. Patrick De Haan is the head of petroleum analysis with GasBuddy, the gargantuan fuel price monitoring and reporting service. De Haan told us, “With COVID recovery now well underway, demand for truckers is very high, and with gasoline demand rebounding, it’s been a challenge in some areas of the country where gasoline demand was especially brisk (Spring Break destinations, etc.) for stations to stay ahead of the demand with fewer truckers.”
All the same, this doesn’t translate to real trouble ahead. GasBuddy’s De Haan explains: “If the problems becomes acute enough, I’d expect politicians would ease some restrictions on hauling hours so that fewer truckers can make more deliveries, but we’re in a tender spot this summer.” He adds his expert view: “I don’t believe the majority of Americans will have any problems finding gasoline this summer.”
Echoing this view comes this statement from Pilot Flying J management: “We are preparing for a busy summer travel season and don’t anticipate any fuel shortages at our travel centers across the country. Our strong supply chain and fleet of drivers are essential to ensuring the availability of fuel at our stores so that our guests can continue to rely on Pilot and Flying J Travel Centers for their transportation needs.”
What you can do
Yeah, but what if fuel shortages do materialize, even on a somewhat minor scale? There are some things you can do. First, when you’re on the road, don’t dilly-dally about stopping for a fuel up. Pull off the road, fill the tank. We DON’T recommend carrying extra fuel cans. The more of the stuff you carry in auxiliary containers, the higher the degree of problems, like impacts from traffic accidents. GasBuddy’s Patrick De Haan does make a suggestion. “The GasBuddy app can turn into the app to not only find low-priced stations, but find stations with gas, if necessary, and we’re prepared to do so.” GasBuddy depends on members to provide real-time fuel prices, and in exceptional circumstances, to report the lack of fuel, too.
Fuel shortages this summer? Maybe, but probably not. Make your plans, take precautions, and enjoy your RV travels.