Winter lack of fuel is unlikely--for now, Md. official predicts

October 21, 1990|By Doug Birch

Marylanders probably won't find themselves idling in gas lines or shivering through heating oil shortages this winter, Donald E. Milsten, director of the state's Energy Office, predicts.

But Mr. Milsten hitched a train of caveats to that prediction, made last week at a meeting of the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments.

"If we don't have a cold winter, if we don't have a war, if we don't have major problems in the refining industry," he said. "That's a lot of ifs."

For now, he said, the nation has enough motor fuel, heating oil and natural gas to last an uneventful winter. But if shooting starts in the Persian Gulf, if arctic weather strikes or if the nation's shortage of refineries causes bottlenecks, Maryland has a strategy to cope.

Under a 1982 law, Gov. William Donald Schaefer could declare an energy emergency and set up a crisis management team of state and county officials. The team would be asked to recommend specific actions, such as mandatory ride-sharing programs.

The governor, in turn, could implement those actions by executive order, subject to the approval of the General Assembly's Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee.

One program authorized by the 1982 law is a fuel set-aside effort, where major oil companies would be ordered to reserve a percentage of their monthly fuel supply for allocation by the state.

Mr. Milsten said this would, for example, prevent ambulance companies from being forced to compete for gasoline with other vehicles. Stocks of diesel, propane, heating oil and aviation fuel would also be set aside.

Mr. Milsten, speaking at the regional council's Charles Street headquarters, said he doubted that rationing based on odd and even license tag numbers, used in the 1970s, would return. Enforcement would be difficult, he said, because today few gas stations have employees whose only job is to man the pumps.

Ad hoc enforcement by irate motorists in gas lines could prove hazardous. "We call that .44 Magnum enforcement," he said.

The state's 100,000 propane customers, most of whom live in rural areas and use the fuel for heating, may be more vulnerable to shortages than people who heat with oil or natural gas, Mr. Milsten warned.

Last year, the state organized truck convoys and rail shipments from propane processing plants in the South because of an acute shortage, which Mr. Milsten blamed on a lack of propane pipeline capacity and other problems with the fuel's delivery system.

Propane prices have shot up, and suppliers are better prepared to deliver the product to this region, so that those shortages may not recur, he said.

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