Fuel shortage seen delaying delivery of disaster aid

Mar 17 2011 - 11:48am

TOKYO -- A shortage of fuel is hampering the shipment of urgently needed disaster aid to stricken regions, and while damage from last week's earthquake and tsunami is playing a major role in the problem, rigid government regulations are also slowing down the process.

Supply is not the problem, as primary oil distributors are reportedly working around the clock and the government has urged the private sector to release stockpiles. But still, many consumers even in unaffected areas have rushed to fill their gas tanks and scoop up other fuel.

The Japanese public is hoping the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan can provide prompt and effective leadership to open up the transport network to ensure the earthquake-hit areas can get a steady fuel supply.

About 100 vehicles recently lined up at a gas station in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. Cars were waiting as long as 90 minutes to fill their tanks. An employee at another station said gas it had purchased the previous morning and expected to last three or four days sold out within an hour.

The biggest cause of the gas shortage has been the shutdown of refineries such as JX Nippon Oil and Energy Corp.'s Negishi facility in Yokohama and Cosmo Oil Co.'s refinery in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, due to last week's earthquake. Hoarding by consumers has only added to the pinch.

However, concern over the greater petroleum supply network is unfounded, industry sources said. JX's Negishi refinery and Tonen General Sekiyu K.K.'s Kawasaki refinery are expected to restart operations as early as next week.

On Wednesday, several primary oil distributors announced they were taking steps to reinforce their gasoline supplies. JX decided to make an emergency purchase from a leading oil company in South Korea, and JX and Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K. said they would halt petroleum exports and prioritize addressing domestic demand. One leading distributor said fuel supplies would start to increase sharply after the middle of next week.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda on Monday encouraged the private sector to release any stockpiled oil.

According to the ministry, oil reserves as of the end of January -- calculated in terms of finished product based on the petroleum reserve law -- were enough for 87 days by the private sector and 114 days by the government, meaning Japan has a total of 201 days of oil in reserve. A considerable portion of these reserves is gasoline and other products that are ready to go on the retail market.

"We have plenty of gas. The problem is moving it," said a senior official of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren).

Immediately after the earthquake last week, the Tohoku and Joban expressways -- vital access channels to the disaster sites -- were only open to police, Self-Defense Forces and emergency vehicles carrying water, food and other needed aid.

Tanker trucks carrying gas, light oil, heating oil and other essential fuel have been able to be certified as emergency vehicles by the police since Sunday. But many transport companies were not properly notified, meaning some trucks unnecessarily took gridlocked national roads or gave up on reaching the disaster region entirely. Some trucking companies have complained of difficulty getting pass permits.

"Tanker trucks can be easily recognized (as emergency vehicles)," Nippon Keidanren Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura said Wednesday. "(The government) shouldn't insist on rigidly sticking to regulations. Flexibly is needed to quickly get aid to afflicted areas."

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has coordinated with the National Police Agency and other authorities to allow, starting Wednesday, tanker trucks to obtain passes at highway ramps instead of having to go to police stations.

But many in the transport industry complained that any vehicle carrying fuel should be able to pass even without a permit.

Meanwhile, Idemitsu Kosan Co. on Wednesday said it would soon reopen its oil storage facility in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture. The company also said it would begin transporting oil via sea routes from refineries in Hokkaido and Chiba Prefecture as soon as tankers are allowed to enter Shiogama Port in Miyagi Prefecture.

Observers have said that expanding sea transport routes will likely also be necessary.

(c) 2011, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Visit the Daily Yomiuri Online at http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/index-e.htm/.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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