By Robert Campbell
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Huge logistical problems from power failures and navigational hazards roiled the massive New York Harbor oil hub in the wake of Hurricane Sandy on Thursday, threatening widespread delays in fuel deliveries off the New York Mercantile Exchange's futures contracts.
With regional gasoline stations running dry, oil companies are scrambling to resupply their networks but cannot gain access to millions of barrels of fuel trapped in regional terminals.
Most, if not all, of the terminals approved by the NYMEX futures exchange as delivery points for its gasoline and heating oil contracts were closed, raising the possibility that traders would be unable to immediately fulfill contractual deliveries under the November futures contract, which expired on Wednesday.
Large oil tankers were also still barred from entering the New York Harbor, a major point of entry for the nearly 1 million barrels per day of fuel imported by the U.S. East Coast.
The U.S. Coast Guard was expected to allow limited movements by barges and other small vessels on Thursday in the Harbor, which straddles the states of New York and New Jersey, but several key waterways remained closed.
Most of the region's refineries continued to restore operations, with oil markets focused on the recovery of Phillips 66's 238,000 bpd Bayway refinery in Linden, New Jersey. Sources said the plant could resume operations next week at the earliest it deals with electrical equipment damaged by flooding and boosts power supplies.
The U.S. East Coast relies on shipments of fuel from the Gulf Coast and from overseas refineries to meet more than a third of regional oil demand.
Navigational hazards forced the closure of three channels in the lower part of the Harbor, including the heavily-used Arthur Kill, a tank farm-lined waterway separating New York's Staten Island and New Jersey, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Terminal operators which are approved delivery terminals for NYMEX' gasoline and heating oil futures contracts, including Motiva, NuStar and Kinder Morgan, were still shut due to power shortages or damage, making them unable to schedule deliveries or shipments.
"We're down, we've got no power. There's no electricity in the entire city of Bayonne and we've got no idea when we'll get back up," said an operator at the International Matex Tank Terminal in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Traders who did not exit their November RBOB gasoline or heating oil futures positions before expiry last Wednesday must begin on November 1 to make arrangements to deliver or receive fuel. Gasoline futures fluctuated wildly on Wednesday as dealers positioned, surging more than 7 percent before fading.
Deliveries must be completed between Nov 8. and Nov 29, according to the regulations of the CME Group, the operator of the NYMEX.
However, with little or no terminal capacity available, counterparties may have no choice but to declare force majeure under the provisions of the CME's regulations and then arrange alternative delivery times, traders say.
"The flexibility of the dates and methods for delivery should help keep delivery on the November contract from becoming an issue," said a products broker who requested anonymity because of customers who are buyers and sellers on the exchange.
A CME spokesman was not immediately able to comment on the status of the approved terminals.
There are 13 approved terminals in New York and New Jersey for the delivery of RBOB gasoline and 16 terminals where heating oil deliveries can be made.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration said on Thursday only four terminals in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area, were open. None were in the Harbor, three were in Connecticut and one was in Paulsboro, New Jersey.
Local distributors were also believed to be active in the market, taking positions to ensure they would receive supplies.
"Due to the refining, port, and pipeline issues in the aftermath of Sandy, some wholesalers may using the expiring NYMEX gasoline contract as a way to get physical supply over the next several weeks," said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC in New York.
Colonial Pipeline, operator of a major artery that moves fuel from refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast to the northeastern United States, said on Thursday it hoped to resume limited operations on Friday but that deliveries into the New York Harbor area would be complicated by storm damage.
(Reporting by Robert Gibbons, David Sheppard, Joshua Schneyer, Edward McAllister and Robert Campbell; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Marguerita Choy)