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Argentina drivers hunt for fuel 'like water in the desert' amid shortage

(Reuters) - Argentine drivers ran the gauntlet on Monday to find scarce supplies of petrol to fill their tanks amid the most acute fuel shortage in years, which has left many filling stations out of supply and long lines at any pumps still operating.

The South American country, a major shale oil and gas producer, has suffered shortages of petrol and diesel since late last week because of domestic refining problems and as a lack of dollars has delayed imports.

That has sparked anger at the government ahead of a second-round presidential election runoff next month between the ruling Peronist coalition's economy chief Sergio Massa, seen as the front-runner, and radical libertarian Javier Milei.

"The truth is that I work with the car and it's like looking for water in the desert," said 38-year-old Cabify driver Raul Paretto. "It is distressing because you don't know on a day-to-day basis what can happen; we are living one day at a time."

Around the capital Buenos Aires, Reuters reporters saw empty filling stations with signs saying no more petrol. In other places, long queues formed and some rationed sales. There were, however, some signs of things starting to improve.

"Today they sold me only super, though there was no premium," said self-employed worker Leonardo Villa with his car. "But, well, yesterday there was none anywhere, the day before neither. At least today I was able to fill up."

In Argentina's farmlands, producers said a shortage of diesel showed signs of abating too, key for the start of the planting season of soy and late season corn, the country's main cash crops.

"It is not completely normalized but there is a little more supply," Jorge Chemes, the head of the Argentine Rural Confederations (CRA), told Reuters on Monday.


Oil executives cited planned halts at local refineries, which provide 80% of domestic supply, and the country's scarce foreign currency reserves that have held up imports.

"It's not a problem of lack of crude oil, the problem is that there's no more processing capacity with the refineries we have in Argentina," said one industry source, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

"On top of that, you need dollars to pay for imports and the central bank does not have them. And even when they do import, the refining companies make a loss selling at the pump below the price they are buying," the source said.

Argentina's government has fixed a local oil price at $56 per barrel, far below the international price around $86 to try to calm local inflation of nearly 140%. That skews the economics for firms importing product from overseas.

During the weekend Economy Minister Massa told oil companies they must solve the domestic supply crisis by the end of Tuesday or the government would halt crude oil export shipments from the huge Vaca Muerta shale formation.

"I am going to defend the internal supply, I am going to defend the consumption of Argentines," he said.

Argentina's largest fuel producers and refiners said in a joint statement on Monday they had presented a plan to the government to bring gas stations back up to full supply and to boost stocks.

"We will use all methods possible to accelerate the unloading of ships with imported fuel, which, like every year, supplements local production," they said.

Local unions backed Massa's position and threatened a strike from Wednesday unless the domestic situation was resolved. They said crude production was at a record and the oil companies were being "opportunistic and petty."

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