As if you needed more doom and gloom to kick off this week, the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) lobby has confessed that its fleet will go into the next few months operating well below capacity. That means there’s a very good chance that some parts of the country could see gas shortages over the summer. While we’re praying that this doesn’t come with with the deluge of less-than-desirable automobiles that followed the infamous 1973 oil crisis, a similar spike in fuel price is likely as gasoline becomes sporadically difficult to find.
With the United States technically still energy independent, the culprit is not a foreign oil embargo but our own inability to plan ahead. North America was already operating with a deficit of qualified tanker drivers ahead of the pandemic. Lockdowns suppressed demand as everyone was forced to remain immobile, suppressing demand that ultimately encouraged widespread layoffs and early retirement. Now there aren’t enough drivers as demand stabilizes.
This is one of those problems that literally everyone should have seen coming unless they were operating under the assumption that lockdowns would continue in perpetuity. But here we are, with CNN breaking the story.
Drivers are required to have a commercial license but fuel transporters also have special certifications allowing them to move volatile materials using a specific class of vehicles. Once hired, most drivers will be subjected to additional training to prove they’re safe behind the wheel and versed in the latest safety protocols. Going through the entire process can take months and the industry is already operating at a deficit.
According to the National Tank Truck Carriers, the industry’s trade group, somewhere between 20 [percent] to 25 [percent] of tank trucks in the fleet are parked heading into this summer due to a paucity of qualified drivers. At this point in 2019, only 10 [percent] of trucks were sitting idle for that reason.
“We’ve been dealing with a driver shortage for a while, but the pandemic took that issue and metastasized it,” said Ryan Streblow, the executive vice president of the NTTC. “It certainly has grown exponentially.”
Indeed, drivers left the business a year ago when gasoline demand ground to a near halt during the early pandemic-related shutdowns.
With demand for drivers likewise screeching to a halt in 2020, many training schools were shuttered. January 2020 also introduced a federal audit that eliminated between 40,000 and 60,000 drivers from the national employment pool that had prior drug or alcohol convictions.
Retailers are becoming increasingly concerned over the possibility of outages, which we saw to a limited degree in places like Florida over spring break. Summer road trips should be even more taxing on the supply chain, with popular vacation spots likely to have the most trouble. But there are growling concerns that smaller stations in isolated communities will similarly be taking it on the chin.
“I’ve talked to retailers, they say there could be places where there are brief outages,” explained Jeff Lenard, spokesman at the National Association of Convenience Stores. “If they have no fuel, they have no business. People aren’t going to stop in for a sandwich if you don’t have fuel.”
Tanker firms are increasing pay in the hope that they’ll be able to retain drivers and encourage new blood to join up. But this is all going to trickle down to the people paying at the pump. In a worst-case scenario, we could even see sporadic outages and elevated fees lead to a run on fuel similar to the madness that engulfed toilet paper at the start of the pandemic. Considering fuel prices are already up 60 percent against this time in 2020 and COVID has kept everyone on edge for the last 13 months, it wouldn’t take much to create a national freakout that resulted in panic buying. However, tanker operators and industry analysts are only predicting short-term, sporadic outages and the national average climbing to $3 per gallon through the summer.
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