If soaring fuel prices weren't enough ... 'diesel shortage' shuts truck stops across the country

Screen Shot 2021 06 28 At 3 39 52 Pm
Updated Nov 10, 2021
Image shows a sign in the window of Kingman, Arizona, Petro shop warning of a diesel fuel shortage.
Owner-operator Tim Klaus reached out with this photo taken over the weekend at the the Kingman, Arizona, Petro.

On top of the soaring fuel prices hitting the bottom line of some owner-operators and small fleets, diesel might account for the latest shortage impacting the U.S. economy. Outlets of major truck stop chains across the country have in spots started limiting the number of gallons a hauler can purchase in a single transaction. 

Tim Klaus, an owner-op since 1984, recently sent Overdrive the picture of the sign above, from a Petro stop in Kingman, Arizona. The sign trumpeted a "national diesel shortage" while limiting fuel buyers to a 60-gallon maximum.  

“That just blew my mind," said Klaus. "I went through the fuel shortage of the 70s, and we didn’t get hit like that directly."

Luckily, Klaus had already fueled up, but what he saw left a lasting impression with trucks lined up "three and four deep, backing out onto the road" waiting at the truck stop's 16 pumps. Other truck stops in the area had fuel and no noted restrictions, said Klaus. 

"It’s scary," said Klaus of persistent supply chain issues, now seemingly hitting the fuel on which owners' truck run. "The whole thing is getting out of hand."  

The Petro station confirmed high demand had hampered its ability to keep up. "We cannot keep up with the drivers because they are pumping $800 or $900 of fuel here, so we have to close our site two three times a day," and that the station was working to refill its reserves, but couldn't be sure when that would happen. 

A note from TA Petro's corporate spokesperson expanded on the matter: 

"The fuel industry as a whole is experiencing shortages and TA is no exception. We are currently experiencing intermittent supply outages and may be limiting the amount of gallons per purchase, depending on location.

"TravelCenters of America has a dedicated team working closely with our suppliers and other partners, and we are bringing in product from other markets to maintain availability and to help minimize any potential disruptions."

The Petro in Kingman isn't alone in facing this problem, either. Truck stops near Columbus, Ohio, also had to close for lack of diesel. 

[Related: Fuel prices increase again, hitting seven-year high | Rates rise in tandem]

Pilot Companies Senior Vice President of Supply and Distribution Brad Jenkins said his company was struggling to keep diesel stocked at the pumps in some places.

“Like other fuel retailers, we are seeing limited capacity in some markets due to extremely tight diesel supply conditions, particularly in the Columbus, Ohio, market region," he said. "We are working to manage demand across our stores in the surrounding areas to maintain consistent diesel supply for our customers and guests. Currently, all of our travel centers are open, however select locations may experience temporary diesel outages until the supply situation improves.”

While neither company answered directly the cause of the shortage -- whether production was down, fuel haulers couldn't be found, or just that demand had outpaced supply (the apparent situation in Kingman)  -- the shortage coincides with a spike in diesel prices, which recently saw a seven-year high.

The four-week average production number of ultra-low-sulfur distillates (the diesel most-utilized in today's on-highway vehicles) reached its lowest point in March of this year, following severely low temperatures across the Southern United States in February that disrupted industrial operations, after creeping down slowly from 2018-'19 highs over the course of the 2020.The four-week average production number of ultra-low-sulfur distillates (the diesel most-utilized in today's on-highway vehicles) reached its lowest point in March of this year, following severely low temperatures across the Southern United States in February that disrupted industrial operations, after creeping down slowly from 2018-'19 highs over the course of the 2020.

Current conditions also coincide with many around trucking increasingly trumpeting a "driver shortage," but owner-operator Klaus offered a possible explanation for the phenomenon -- at least in Arizona. 

"What I think is happening is that the price of fuel is so high in California --- it’s $4.65 [there] and it’s $3.65 in Arizona," said Klaus. "If you buy 200 gallons, you’re talking a $200 difference. I think [drivers are] pumping Arizona dry" to take advantage of that price differential. 

Klaus, who books and prices his loads sometimes months in advance, said the rise in fuel prices has put him in uncomfortable situations with longtime customers. 

"I’m losing $300-400 on a coast to cast load" due to fuel prices, said Klaus. "I bid all these loads months in advance and now I'm gonna have to cover my expenses. I ain’t doing too bad. I raise them to what I think the fuel is going to go up, but I didn’t raise it high enough" this time around.

As far as why southern Ohio experienced diesel shortages, Klaus said the problem could be a lack of fuel haulers, but offered a simple solution: "Pay them more."

[Related: Higher costs, reduced opportunity: Worries dominate small fleets' Biden administration outlook]

Have you seen gallon limitations or diesel outages in the past six months? Take Overdrive's three-question survey below to share your experience. 

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