Increasingly nervous motorists have been lining up at gas stations all over the East Coast in the wake of a ransomware attack that forced the shutdown of a pipeline supplying nearly half of the gas and diesel to the region.
While experts insist there are no shortages of fuel, some stations in North Carolina and other areas served by Colonial Pipeline have run out of gas. That appears to be largely the result of higher-than-normal demand. But the situation is also complicated by the nationwide shortage of fuel tank truck drivers.
“I just drove by 8 stations. All out of gas. Good luck,” Stephen Silver posted on Facebook group for residents of the Asheville, North Carolina region.
At least one regional government, that of Onslow County, announced it was instituting measures meant to preserve fuel supplies in a crisis.
Fuel prices accelerate recent rise
Nationwide, fuel prices have been on the rise in recent months, an upturn that largely has reflected a rise in traffic as weather warms and more Americans step out after pandemic lockdowns. According to tracking service GasBuddy, the national average for regular unleaded jumped from around $2.49 a gallon three months ago to $2.97 today.
But other factors are propping up prices, including the tanker shortage and, now, the shutdown of the 5,500-mile pipeline that was shut down when Colonial was hit by a ransomware attack last Friday. The Georgia-based company has been able to reactivate some branch pipelines but the main line is still out of service.
For its part, Colonial issued a statement indicating it has a “goal of substantially restoring operational service by the end of the week.”
Enough supply – for now
Regional storage centers indicate they should have enough fuel to carry them over until then.
But it would turn into a potentially serious problem if the shutdown continues much beyond then, according to Patrick De Haan, GasBuddy’s lead analyst, because Colonial Pipeline provides about 45% of the fuel used along the East Coast.
Nonetheless, many motorists appear to be unwilling to take chances and are keeping their gas tanks topped off.
“A lot of them are filling up just because of the uncertainty,” Andrew Howard, manager of Howard Gasoline & Oil Co., told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Shortage of tank truck drivers
It likely didn’t help that word was already out that the entire country could experience spot fuel shortages over the summer, normally the time of peak travel. The primary concern was not a lack of supply, AAA national spokesperson Jeanette McGee telling TheDetroitBureau.com there is “plenty” of fuel. The issue, she said, is a shortages of drivers needed to get fuel from refineries to pumps.
According to the trade group the National Tank Truck Carriers about 25% of U.S. fuel trucks have been sitting idle in recent weeks, more than double the normal number pre-pandemic.
Should the Colonial Pipeline shutdown extend beyond the end of the week, the driver shortage could make it more difficult to replenish service stations, especially those experiencing panic buying.
AAA and other groups say motorists should expect to see gas prices rise, especially in areas served by Colonial Pipeline. But they also advise motorists to avoid panicking and buy fuel as they would normally, helping preserve supplies until the spigot is turned on again.