'Puzzling' diesel shortages -- a third of owner-operators report experiencing outages, limitations

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Updated Nov 13, 2021
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A variety of factors have contributed to spot diesel shortages in a variety of locations West and East this year. While most Overdrive readers haven't experienced an outage, a substantial 31% reported experiencing purchase limitations, an outage or both in the last six months.

The diesel shortages cropping up at around a dozen truck stops in Ohio and the Southwest have set back truckers during an unprecedented supply chain crisis, but the root causes remain something of a mystery, even to those in the fuel-hauling industry. 

John Henderson, who owns Nemo Freight LLC, a Midwest small fleet fuel hauler, said his business has no problem sourcing diesel fuel in the region, and that while sometimes finding available drivers isn't easy, he doubts a so-called "driver shortage" would cause such trouble for the big chain truck stops. 

"The Ohio shortage is kind of puzzling," said Henderson. "Because here in the Midwest, diesel is not the problem at all. We’re having trouble at times finding gasoline for customers, but not diesel. It's just baffling." Most readers (69%) agreed, reporting this week they haven't experienced either per-gallon limitations on purchases or truck stops where diesel wasn't available within the past six months.

Overdrive recently reported on diesel fuel shortages hitting parts of Arizona and southern Ohio, which a reader tipped us off to. Spokespeople from Pilot and TA confirmed that fuel shortages had limited availability in those regions, though they appear short-lived and spotty in general. 

Tim Klaus, an Overdrive reader and an owner-operator since 1984, shared images of the Kingman, Arizona TA Petro that limited diesel purchases to 60 gallons per customer. Overdrive called the truck stop, which confirmed it had a shortage of diesel fuel and that it had to close sometimes two or three times a day when supplies ran out. 

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Klaus speculated that with diesel prices almost a dollar lower in Arizona than California, drivers were "pumping them dry."

But while Klaus' theory may hold water for that area, why are truck stops in Columbus, Ohio struggling to keep fuel on hand? 

Overdrive reached out to Pilot and Love's, who both have their own fleets for fuel hauling, about the causes of the shortage, but have not heard back yet with answers to that question.

Henderson said he knew of a number of supply chain crunches that had occurred in diesel and gasoline production over the course of the pandemic, such as the shortage of IVD, a gasoline additive, this Spring, but nothing that would explain a diesel shortage. 

"My contacts at the pipelines are either tight-lipped or they just don't know," he continued. 

Henderson said that fuel haulers in his region could easily bring home $85,000 to $110,000 a year and that linehaul work comprised most of the opportunities out there. Trucking companies, he added, may have shot themselves in the foot early in the pandemic when demand for fuel bottomed out, however. 

"There are so many contributing factors," said Henderson, "but a lot of these tanker companies pretty much told their guys for months, 'Sorry, we don’t have enough work for you. Stay home.' You can only do that for so long. They went and found other jobs. Trying to get those guys back is difficult." 

[Related: Mainstream 'driver shortage' debate gets more -- and less -- realistic]

Globally, much of Asia has struggled with diesel shortages, with reports of some drivers in China waiting a day for fuel and South Korea running low on urea water, one of the main components in DEF. Henderson doubted that U.S. firms had caused the shortage by exporting diesel to Asia. A look at the Energy Information Administration's export numbers for ultra-low-sulfur distillates show some fairly seasonal patterns, with volume moving out of the country rising over the summer months.  

President Joe Biden's administration has come under fire for soaring inflation, specifically in fuel costs. Despite members of his administration claiming inflation was transitory, and the Energy Secretary laughing about the idea that Biden might take action to lower fuel prices, Biden on Wednesday shifted his message, saying addressing inflation would become his "top priority." The shift in tone came after October's Consumer Price Index inflation rate came in at 6.2%, the highest recorded since 1990. 

As the supply chain at large struggles to serve Americans' new consumption habits, it could be that diesel fuel has become the latest casualty of a more complex and widespread economic phenomenon. A truck parts shortage, a diesel technician shortage, and a semiconductor shortage all continue to chip away at the ability of trucking companies and owner-operators to maximize efficiency and productivity to stay on the road moving goods.