Good news for drivers: Colonial Pipeline blast has little effect at the pump

Spencer Platt | Getty Images

The price at the gasoline pump ticked higher in parts of the U.S. southeast on Friday as a key U.S. gasoline pipeline remained offline following a fatal explosion, but most of the country should feel little impact, analysts say.

In fact, many motorists should see gas prices fall as seasonal factors kick in.

Colonial Pipeline continued to repair a gasoline line that runs from Texas, through the South and up the East Coast following a blast in Shelby County, Alabama, that killed one worker and injured several other. On Friday, Colonial pushed back the start up day from Saturday to Sunday afternoon.

Still, the effects will be relatively muted compared with the impact of a leak on the same line that stopped the flow of gasoline for more than a week two months ago. That incident sent prices soaring by 20 to 30 cents a gallon in some parts of the country.

"It's a short-lived spike. It's not nearly as severe as it was when the pipeline leaked back in September," said Gregg Laskoski, senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.

On Friday, gasoline prices in Georgia ticked up 1.5 cents on the day and were up about 6 cents from a week earlier, according to GasBuddy. In South Carolina, they rose about 2 cents from last week. They were up about a penny in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Atlanta drivers are taking the biggest hit — prices in the surrounding county were 14 cents above the state average. That's because the city is almost entirely dependent on gasoline from Colonial's Line 1, said Laskoski.

To mitigate the regional effects, the governors of Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina waived regulations that prevent commercial trucks from transporting motor fuel within state lines. The Environmental Protection Agency also allowed Colonial Pipeline to commingle different fuel grades to reduce supply disruptions in affected areas.

The difference between the blast this week and the leak in September is that workers were present during the explosion, and therefore Colonial responded immediately.

"They were on this thing like white on rice. They were able to do the repairs as rapidly as possible," he said. In September, Line 1 had been leaking for some time before it was discovered. The delayed response resulted in a 250,000-gallon spill, and fumes made it difficult for workers to approach the site, according to Laskoski.

The September leak also came as refiners were switching from their summer to winter blends and entering maintenance season, said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service. That means supply was already limited when the event occurred.

Gas pipeline explosion: Impact on prices

Refiners were just coming out of maintenance season when this week's explosion occurred. November and December are traditionally weak periods for gasoline prices, so motorists have seasonal factors at their backs, as well, Kloza noted.

Gasoline prices are actually fairly elevated for this time of year, but Kloza sees them falling as soon as this weekend as refiners continue to ramp up activity, and as they converge with falling oil futures.

U.S. crude prices have fallen from a 2016 peak above $51 to about $44 in just two weeks. That decline came as the U.S. government reported the biggest jump in crude stockpiles on record, and as traders doubted OPEC will reach a deal at the end of the month to boost prices as planned.

Even drivers in New Jersey could see prices moderate after a 25-cent spike in the last week that came about due to the state increasing its gas tax, Kloza said.

"A lot of big refineries are coming back up and will start making gasoline," he said. "Those refineries were born to run."