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Japan relief efforts hampered by fuel shortage

AP Photo/Koji Sasahara

Motorists form a long line for refueling outside a gas station in Okawara, Miyagi Prefecture Wednesday.

John Schoen writes: Efforts to get relief to victims of the Japanese earthquake are being hampered by shortages of gasoline and diesel fuel nearly a week after the disaster, according to international aid groups and reports from the affected area.

"The huge challenge for the aid workers on the ground is just the operating conditions they are dealing with," said  Kirsten Mildren, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

In addition to the "monumental" destruction and bad weather, "you've got a fuel shortage and you've got a lack of transport and cars up there," she said.

"Search and rescue teams can't even get around, they're having to walk around. In terms of all the elements coming together … they're facing a really hard task."

Shipments of crude oil have been restored to all but two Japanese ports, but the country’s refining capacity remains crippled by quake-related damage and fires. Six plants remained offline as of Wednesday, reducing by more than 30 percent the country’s output of 1.4 million barrels per day of refined fuel. Some of that capacity could return as early as next week.

To make up the shortfall, fuel companies have boosted imports of diesel and gasoline.

The Chinese government this week said it would  provide 20,000 metric tons of tons of gasoline and diesel fuel as emergency assistance, the equivalent of about 150,000 barrels.

Widespread highway damage presented fuel suppliers with further obstacles as they tried to deliver their products to gas stations and businesses. In the hard-hit Miyagi prefecture, local storage and distribution pipelines were damaged by the quake. Rolling blackouts left gas stations without electricity needed to operate their gas pumps.

The gas shortage also hampered the ability of earthquake victims to leave the stricken area.

Gasoline supplies were tightened further by hoarding throughout Japan, according to Japanese newspaper reports. On Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference that gasoline and diesel were in short supply in quake-damaged areas, and he urged consumers elsewhere in the country to help free up desperately needed supplies.

“I appeal to the public to stop panic buying of fuel,” he said.

While Japan likely will need more petroleum-based fuel soon to compensate for power lost from its crippled nuclear plants, the impact on global markets is likely to be slight, a U.S. official said Thursday.

Past nuclear plant outages in Japan have increased its use of oil by 200,000 barrels a day, a small fraction of the worldwide oil use of 88 million barrels daily, said Richard Newell, who oversees data collection for the U.S. Energy Department.

“I think in the global scheme of things, it will probably be a small impact,” Newell told reporters Thursday during a break in a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee.