An entire tree blocks a street as Hurricane Harvey makes landfall in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Friday. Several power lines, stop lights and trees were upended and strewn throughout the streets of downtown Corpus Christi as the category 4 hurricane ripped through the Texas coast. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Hurricane Harvey could raise gas prices in metro Atlanta

Hurricane Harvey started punishing the Texas coast this weekend and metro Atlanta motorists could soon feel the impact in the form of higher gas prices and – depending on the storm’s path and strength – fuel shortages.

The huge storm made landfall around Corpus Christi and has shut down oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and refineries along the coast. However, the lion’s share of oil and gas infrastructure is to the north and has been spared – so far – by the worst of Harvey’s winds and rain.

But forecasters warn that there’s always the chance it will move in unexpected ways. And even if it doesn’t slide north, Harvey seems likely to linger, lashing the Texas coast for days, disrupting a sizeable portion of oil production and refining.

Hurricane Harvey is hammering the Lone Star State, although it has been downgraded to a Category 1 storm from its initial landfall status as a Category 4 storm.

“The impact on Texas could be significant, which could lead to long-term issues in terms of gasoline supply for large portions of the country,” said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy. “While the picture continues to change, one thing is nearly guaranteed: gasoline prices in every state will be impacted to varying degrees over the next one or two weeks.”

For metro Atlanta, the storm’s worst effects are still far away.

Saturday morning, gasoline was available in a number of area stations for as little as $2.08 a gallon, according to Gas Buddy affiliate atlantagasprices.com. The average price in metro Atlanta was $2.29 a gallon, seven cents cheaper than the national average.

But the hurricane sent wholesale prices of gasoline up 10 cents a gallon — something that eventually will work through to the pump. And Atlanta’s average gas price is already up six cents in the past several days.

And the several million drivers in the region should know well that they are at the end of a long supply chain and that distant damage can quickly ripple through the system.

That is what happened after Hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005 – and Hurricane Rita about a month later. And that is what happened just a year ago when an Alabama fire took down one of two major pipelines bringing gasoline from refineries in Louisiana and Texas.

That fire sent Atlanta prices up almost 40 cents a gallon, cresting at an average of about $2.50.

American distribution is a network of webs, leading from production in Texas and the Gulf, the American Midwest, Canada and overseas. Some regions get their gas and oil from multiple directions, but metro Atlanta looks solely to the Gulf.

And just 12 percent of Gulf oil rigs were directly in Harvey’s path, according to WTRG Economics in Arkansas. But there are other ways that the system is disrupted: “The storm will also delay the arrival of tankers, although some will have speeded up to offload before the storm hits,” wrote WTRG economist James Williams.

The impact of energy problems in the Gulf are not softened for Atlanta by a flow of gasoline from somewhere else.

That is why past trouble has meant higher prices or – worse, for those who need to drive – shuttered stations with no gasoline at all.

Technology helps drivers cope. For instance, Gas Buddy has a “tracker” web site that is meant to tell drivers where gas can be found.

And of course, the drivers with electric vehicles – whose purchase might seem extravagant when gas is cheap – should not have to worry at all.

AJC Business reporter Michael E. Kanell keeps you updated on the latest news about jobs, housing and consumer issues in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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