Economic impacts of Sandy: Will gas prices go up?

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, it's still unclear whether consumers will see a nationwide gas spike.

One bit of good news: The Northeast's largest refinery is coming back online. The Philadelphia Energy Solutions plant, which processes a third of the region's oil, said it was "without issues." That lessens the risk of a gasoline shortage that would drive up prices.

But some refineries weren't so lucky.

The second-largest plant in the region, Phillips 66's Bayway Refinery in Linden, N.J., has lost electricity. The company reported that parts of the facility have flooded, and there's no telling yet whether equipment has been damaged. Normally, the plant would process 238,000 barrels of oil per day. Three of the company's terminals nearby also remain shut down.

Hess, which runs a refinery in Port Reading, N.J., lost power Monday night and isn't sure when it will restart. Meanwhile, Hess has suspended operations at terminals in Connecticut, Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Virginia.

Another major player in the region, NuStar, said employees still can't return to its storage terminal in Linden, N.J., because nearby roads are flooded or blocked off.

Analysts have warned that prolonged disruption -- say, upwards of a week -- would cause prices to spike.

That danger is worse than is used to be. The capacity of Northeast oil refineries is much smaller than it was a few years ago. They handle just under 1 million barrels of oil per day, down from 1.6 million barrels per day in 2007.

Oil refineries in Europe have undergone a similar decline, which means that the United States can't simply turn to Europe for extra supply as it has in the past.

Sandy is the first real test since the big decline in refining capacity. Unlike last year's Hurricane Irene, which stayed just east of the refinery region, Sandy tore right through it.

The solution to any supply problems might come from nation's Gulf Coast states via pipelines and ships. However, drawing gasoline away from the Southeast would cause nationwide pressures on supply.

If refineries and terminals do come back online soon, consumers might actually see a drop in the price at the pump because of a drop in consumer demand.

The nation's drivers typically use about 60 million barrels of gasoline every week, but that's expected to drop to 55 million, estimates Tom Kloza, chief analyst at the Oil Price Information Service, which compiles prices for AAA.

"But that drop will only go so far," said Michael Hewson, senior market analyst for CMC Markets in London.

He noted the price of an oil barrel has traded at about the same for six months, and that could prevent the price from falling dramatically in the weeks ahead.

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