By Selam Gebrekidan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hurricane Sandy cut regional gasoline demand less than expected last week, even though the monster storm dealt a direct blow to the New York fuel hub that will persist for weeks, with a major refinery shut and long lines lingering at pumping stations on Tuesday.
Weekly data from MasterCard Inc showed gasoline sales in the central Atlantic region dipped by less than 4 percent last week.
MasterCard, which estimates gasoline demand based on credit card, cash and other payments at service stations, said consumers filled up on the weekend before the storm and bought fuel to power portable generators after. This tempered the year-over-year drop in demand during the days when motorists stayed off the road.
Gasoline sales on Saturday and Sunday rose to 70 million to 80 million barrels, twice as much as other weekends, according to John Gamel, gasoline analyst with MasterCard.
"That's why this was not as bad as (Hurricane) Katrina but we still saw year-over-year declines," Gamel said.
Last year's Halloween snow storm, which briefly stopped traffic in the northeast, cast a shadow on the year-over-year comparisons as well.
The storm-ravaged region faces another onslaught as early as Wednesday with a cold system making its way to the New Jersey coast and into southern New England, according to forecasters.
Demand in the central Atlantic region fell more than it did in the rest of the country. Average demand nationwide dropped 2.4 percent from a year earlier, the data showed.
Sandy flooded the New York region's second-largest refinery, cut power to dozens of terminals in New York and New Jersey and choked the New York Harbor with debris.
A week later, some infrastructure was still struggling to come back. Phillips 66 has said its flooded 238,000 barrels-per-day Bayway refinery in Linden, New Jersey will not return to service for two to three weeks.
But much the area's energy network was recovering. On Tuesday, just nine of the 57 terminals in Sandy's path were shut, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Seven of these were in New Jersey, including Motiva Enterprise's 5-million-barrel Sewaren tank farm, where cleanup efforts were nearly complete after two tankers spilled 378,000 gallons of diesel into the Arthur Kill waterway.
Colonial Pipeline resumed service to eight of the more than 20 customer terminals linked to its Linden, New Jersey terminal, the company said in a statement on Tuesday.
Still, gasoline lines got longer in the Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island boroughs of New York City on Tuesday. Some small pumping stations in the city and across the Hudson in Union city and Jersey city were still closed.
Yet, relief was on the way. The U.S. Coast Guard said it expected five tankers to bring gasoline shipments to the New York Harbor between Tuesday and Sunday.
Energy companies were racing to bring tankers from the U.S. Gulf Coast to the New York Harbor less than a week after the federal government issued a waiver to a law that keeps foreign tankers from transporting fuels between ports. BP was early to start, after it reportedly chartered two foreign ships.
With oil traders standing to make $2 million in profits from each extra tanker, the region could soon have more gasoline than it needs.
(Reporting by Selam Gebrekidan; Editing by David Gregorio)