The Colonial Pipeline, source of 45% of the fuel used along the Eastern Seaboard, resumed operations overnight — now federal, state and local officials hope the news will end panic buying up and down the coast.
By the time the Georgia-based Colonial announced it overcame the crisis triggered by a ransomware attack, tracking service GasBuddy reported that 69% of the gas stations in North Carolina had run out of fuel, with similar problems facing a number of other states served by the 5,500-mile pipeline.
Patrick De Haan, the lead analyst for GasBuddy, said he had “gotten the chills” watching as one service station after another report running out of gas. The situation was seen by many experts as the worst fuel panic since the U.S. was struck by a Mideast oil boycott in the 1970s. Others compared it to the toilet paper buying spree that left shelves bare across the U.S. in the wake lockdowns ordered at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Colonial Pipeline was targeted by a shadowy hacker group, the Darkside, last Friday. It was the latest in a worsening wave of cybersecurity breaches that targeted hospitals, utilities and government agencies across the U.S. Several members of Congress have now called for investigations, one leading Republican also asking to have money to improve cybersecurity included in President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure program.
Once the pipeline came under attack, operators quickly shut it down. They began bringing up some branch operations by the beginning of the week and got the entire system opened up by late afternoon on Wednesday, two days before the pipeline was originally expected to be back up and running.
Colonial did not disclose what sort of payment hackers were demanding. But Reuters today reported that the Alpharetta, Georgia-based company refused to pay and able to overcome the attack on its own after a six-day shutdown.
The pipeline, which can carry as much as 100 million gallons of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel daily, will need time before all supplies are flowing normally and reaching destination points along the entire route from Houston to Linden, New Jersey, officials said.
Prices surge, even as pumps run dry
In the meantime, refined fuel vendors have been pulling out the stops to get more gas and diesel to pumps along the coast.
Gas prices across the country have surged sharply since the crisis began, reaching an average $3 a gallon for the first time since the pandemic began, according to both AAA and GasBuddy. But the bigger concern was the panic buying that left 69% of stations in North Carolina without fuel, said the latter tracking service. GasBuddy also found 52% of stations in Virginia dry, with the numbers at 48% in South Carolina and 46% in Georgia.
“Here in Atlanta, 80% of stations are dry and where there is still gas the lines are a block long and take 30 to 45 minutes,” Nicola Pariseau told TheDetroitBureau.com. She hit “E” as she drove off and managed to find a shorter wait at another station.
Even crisis rules enacted by some regulators — such as limiting fuel purchases to $20 did little to help. Other readers told us they saw motorists reach the limit, drive away from the pump and get back in line.
What particularly concerned officials were reports of motorists filling up all sorts of containers with gasoline, including plastic bags and even open buckets. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued an urgent warning advising motorists not to store fuel in plastic bags. Gasoline can dissolve the plastic or get easily punctured and then result in dangerous leaks.
Even with the Colonial Pipeline returning to operation it is unclear just how soon things will get back to normal at the pump. The crisis has been complicated by an ongoing shortage of fuel truck drivers. According to the National Tank Truck Carriers, a trade group, about 25% of U.S> fuel trucks are sitting idle due to a lack of trained and licensed drivers.
Several states have authorized emergency measures aimed at getting more of those trucks on the road until the crisis is resolved.
Airlines also hope to get back to normal
Motorists aren’t the only ones who have been impacted by the attack on Colonial. With the pipeline also used to deliver jet fuel, airports were running low and airlines flying into affected regions took alternative steps, such as carrying enough fuel when flying into East Coast airports to let them fly back out again.
Delta was looking to see things return to normal, “hopefully by the end of the week and as long as those predictions come true, hopefully we’ll be OK,” Chief Executive Ed Bastian said.