Shell Checks Sulfur Levels In Gas

Just before the Memorial Day weekend, Shell Oil Co. stopped the sale of gasoline at more than 500 stations in Florida and Louisiana because of high levels of sulfur that could alter and possibly ruin fuel gauges.

In addition to getting the false notion that their vehicles have more fuel than they do, drivers stuck with the high-sulfur gas may have to replace their fuel gauges — a small, but complicated device that can easily run $400 to $600.

Shell said it had received 1,800 queries and 825 claims from people who said their fuel gauges had been affected. Gauges typically have silver circuits and the metal degrades quickly when it comes into contract with sulfur.

Shell said it is investigating the high sulfur levels, which originated at the Motiva Enterprises refinery in Norco, La., and were discovered at Shell's distribution center in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, apparently after drivers in the area began complaining.

Problem fuel also turned up in shipments to the Florida cities of Miami, Tampa, Sarasota and Fort Lauderdale. As of Friday, 119 Shell and Texaco stations were closed in the New Orleans area while 400 were not selling fuel in Florida, said Shell spokeswoman Helen Bow.

The stations in Tampa reopened for business Friday and Shell was replacing gasoline at the remaining stations, she said. 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.

Guy Valvis, owner of an auto repair shop in Metairie, La., 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," Valvis said Friday.

Valvis said the parts, along with labor including the draining of fuel and removal of the gas tank, typically runs $400 to $600, and higher with some models.

Redman said the shutdown did not affect fuel prices in the New Orleans area — at least immediately. According to the AAA, a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline around the city is currently averaging $1.94.

"I haven't seen any shortage of gasoline," Redman said. "The key will be how quickly Shell can replenish their service stations."

By Alan Sayre