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Sharing Data: One Key to Keeping Fuel Flowing During Extreme Storms

When public and private sectors communicate, critical energy infrastructure has better chance of staying up and running

sandy no gas

When Hurricane Sandy hit, the fuel stopped flowing — at refineries, at huge storage terminals across the metropolitan area, and finally at most gas stations.

It brought a devastated New Jersey and New York to an economic standstill. Businesses closed. People couldn’t get to work. Critical energy infrastructure shut down.

Hoping to avert that drastic situation in the future, a new report documents the vulnerabilities in the region’s fuel-supply system and recommends a range of steps to more effectively respond to the extreme storms more likely to occur in the years ahead.

The report by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University primarily calls for greatly improved sharing of information between the public and private sectors to better inform decision-making and responses. It also recommends electric utilities be required to restore power to critical fuel-supply infrastructure on a priority basis, something that did not happen after Sandy.

The result was widespread fuel shortages that left motorists pulling up to gas stations without any fuel. Two-thirds of the gas stations in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area were without fuel three days after the storm. Two weeks later, 30 percent of stations were still without gas, the report said.

Between seven and 14 days after Sandy, overall product levels were 65 percent of pre-storm amounts. Both major refineries in northern New Jersey remained closed on November 13 — two weeks after the storm. Fifty-eight fuel-storage terminals suffered damage and power loss from record storm surges.

Since Sandy, the report acknowledged efforts have been made to enhance the understanding of how the fuel-sector works and improve communications between industry and government. Given the growing threats to the system, however, more work needs to be done, the report indicated.

In New Jersey, for instance, the report noted that the state’s Energy Master Plan has placed a new focus on storm resiliency and protecting critical energy infrastructure.

The report concluded that the current voluntary system of information sharing is inadequate to the needs of the public sector and recommends creating mandatory requirements at various levels to address fuel crises.

During Sandy, the shortcomings became apparent, the report noted. When officials sought information about inventories, they were told by the owners or operators of terminals that they did not own the product and could not provide the information.

Among the recommendations, some in the process of being implemented, electric utilities ought to be required to restore power to critical fuel-supply infrastructure on a priority basis and New York and New Jersey identify strategic gas stations.

One potential stumbling block to implementing the recommendations are concerns among the private sector of sharing proprietary information with government officials. But the report noted sharing such information is not a new concept, and energy companies regularly share such information with government agencies.

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