Nearly a week after a cyberattack shut down one of the main sources of fuel for the East Coast, the Biden administration is stepping in to address consumer concerns and help ensure a steady supply of fuel for motorists.
Industry officials insist there’s still plenty of fuel stored in regional depots along the length of the 5,500-mile Colonial Pipeline, nervous drivers have been racing to fill up, causing spot shortages along the Eastern Seaboard.
“I went out at 6 a.m. this morning to five different gas stations and nothing,” wrote Seth Lytton, a Raleigh, North Carolina resident and president of Three Ships Auto, the parent company of TheDetroitBureau.com. “The most concerning part was that they didn’t have anything … (and) a couple had signs saying they ‘didn’t know when a new truck was coming.’”
According to tracking service GasBuddy, demand for gasoline in the U.S. has risen 20% since last week’s ransomware attack on Georgia-based Colonial Pipeline.
Don’t freak out
“The entire 20 percent is hoarding in the Southeast,” said GasBuddy analyst Patrick De Haan, adding that people “freak out” and “don’t listen” when the subject of shortages come up – as was the case when toilet paper and other paper products were in short supply early on in the COVID pandemic.
The reality is far from the doomsday situation many fear. “We have gasoline,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said while speaking to reporters on Tuesday.
The Colonial Pipeline provides about 45% of the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel used along the East Coast. The company has been opening up some branches of the pipeline but warned it likely will take until Friday for the entire run to be reopened.
Regional fuel distributors, such as Pennsylvania-based Howard Gasoline & Oil, claim to have stocks left in their own storage tanks. But that’s only part of the challenge said Sec. Granholm on Tuesday, noting that, “We just have to get it to the right places.”
Situation complicated by driver shortage
Complicating matters is an ongoing shortage of fuel tank truck drivers that has grown worse over the past year. According to the trade group the National Tank Truck Carriers, about 25% of their vehicles are sitting idle, more than double the number at the beginning of the pandemic.
The Biden administration is taking steps to ensure there are plentiful supplies of fuel and the steps needed to get gas and diesel to pumps along the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, the areas where reports of spot shortages are most prevalent.
Government officials at various levels have begun taking steps to improve the situation. Several federal agencies are relaxing rules in areas such as driving time and monitoring, the use of noncompliant fuel blends to bolster existing supplies, enlisting rail operators to transport fuel.
Additionally, Ownley County, North Carolina declared a fuel emergency, for example. That state, as well as Virginia, have declared states of emergency allowing the waiver of regulations that might otherwise restrict fuel deliveries. Such measures could make it easier to put additional drivers in idled tanker trucks. Some environmental rules are being waived at state and federal levels to help provide more fuel.
Gas prices surge
Nationally, the price of regular unleaded has surged by seven cents since last Friday, to a nationwide average of $3.03 a gallon, according to GasBuddy. The surge has been most notable along the East Coast. The service found regular up 10 cents a gallon in Raleigh, and six cents in New York City. But the crisis has resulted in a 22-cent surge in Atlanta in just five days.
“Much as there was no cause for hoarding toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic, there should be no cause for hoarding gasoline especially in light of the fact that pipeline should be substantially operational by the end of the this week and over the weekend,” Granholm said Tuesday.
But numerous posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media show motorists not only filling up their vehicle tanks but trunks full of portable gasoline jerry cans.
Politics enter the picture
In the current, hyper-politicized climate, the crisis has given some administration critics an opportunity to criticize the White House. Several Republicans cited Biden’s opposition to projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline – even though that would have no impact on East Coast fuel supplies.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, a New York Democrat, announced that the Homeland Security subcommittee she chairs will “hold hearings on this incident to explore how we, as a nation, can prevent similar attacks in the future as well as to assess the federal response.”
Sen. Shelly Moor Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, echoed that, calling for a “healthy discussion” of pipeline cybersecurity. Capito leads the GOP side in talks over Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill and said the issue should be included in any final package.
Mysterious hacker group blamed
Cyberattacks have increased in recent years. The FBI launched a probe in March after attacks on two major U.S. hospitals, others were hit by ransomware last October. And the federal government itself fell victim to the SolarWinds attack last year which saw cyber terrorists breach computer systems operated by the Pentagon, the State and Treasury Departments and the Department of Homeland Security.
The FBI this week blamed DarkSide, a criminal hacker group believed based in Russia or another part of Eastern Europe for the Colonial Pipeline attack.