Drivers hit bygauge-gumming gasoline

Kirk Dice, left, and Chris Armand purge the gas pumps at a Shell Station in New Orleans Friday.Bill Haber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Just before the heavy-driving Memorial Day weekend, Shell Oil has stopped the sale of gasoline at more than 500 of its stations in the South because of high levels of sulfur that can damage vehicle fuel gauges and make an empty tank appear full.

The damage done by the bad gasoline could cause some drivers to run out of gas unexpectedly. Also, car owners may have to replace their fuel gauges — a repair job that can easily cost $400 to $600.

The tainted gasoline originated at the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Norco, La., according to Shell. Motiva is the refining arm of Shell in the East and South.

The company said it is investigating how the high sulfur levels occurred. Sulfur is naturally present in crude oil; some of it is supposed to be removed during refining.

As of Friday, 119 Shell and Texaco stations were closed in the New Orleans area, and 400 were not selling fuel in Florida, said Shell spokeswoman Helen Bow. (Shell owns the Texaco brand.)

Gas tanks have a float ball that rises and falls with the fuel level. An electrical system reads the float ball’s level and transmits the information to the dashboard fuel gauge. The system uses silver electrical contacts, which can be quickly corroded by sulfur.

The problem came to light this week after drivers began complaining about inaccurate fuel gauge readings.

In addition to the New Orleans area, problem fuel turned up in shipments to Miami, Tampa, Sarasota and Fort Lauderdale, Shell said.

Shell is replacing the gasoline at its stations. But Bow did not have an estimate of when all the stations would be pumping again.

Don Redman, a spokesman for Louisiana AAA, said that before the shutdown was announced, he fielded several calls from the auto club’s members complaining that their gas readings were way off.

“People have been looking at their odometers because of the high prices and saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute,”’ Redman said.

Shell said it had received 1,800 queries and 825 claims from people who said their fuel gauges had been affected.

Guy Valvis, owner of an auto repair shop in Metairie, said he normally handles about two gauge replacements a year. “I’ve fixed three or four here in the last week, and I’ve got two in here right now,” he said Friday.

Valvis said the repair job entails draining the fuel and removing the gas tank.