The ransomware attack that shut down a major East Coast fuel pipeline could worsen the gas and diesel shortages already expected to strike the U.S. in the coming months.
Georgia-based Colonial Pipeline was forced to shut down operations after hackers launched a ransomware attack on Friday. The company, which handles about 45% of the fuel used on the East Coast, said Friday that it “proactively” halted some of its operations while “taking steps to understand and resolve this issue.”
Colonial said it was “developing a system restart plan” on Sunday, with some operations resuming. But it cautioned that it “will bring our full system back online only when we believe it is safe to do so, and in full compliance with the approval of all federal regulations.”
The pipeline runs from Houston, Texas to Linden, New Jersey, with numerous branches along the way. It handles gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
For the moment, the shutdown has had little to no impact on fuel pump pricing, according to industry trackers, nor have there been any immediate shortages, but things could change if Colonial can’t restore operations quickly.
Quick fix could minimize impact
“The challenges brought on by the Colonial Pipeline shut down would likely not appear for several days or longer,” Patrick De Haan, head of analysis at GasBuddy, said in a tweet.
The ransomware attack is worrisome for a variety of reasons. There already are concerns about gasoline and diesel shortages hitting the U.S. in the months ahead due to a shortage of fuel tank truck drivers. The National Tank Truck Carriers, a trade group, reports that 20 to 25% of gasoline tankers are currently sitting idle, with no one available to put behind the wheel.
“Around Easter, we began hearing from people that pumps were running dry” in a few markets, AAA national spokesperson Jeanette McGee told TheDetroitBureau.com late last month. The situation appears to be worsening, McGee added, “as we (approach) Memorial Day weekend and more people are traveling.”
The crisis at Colonial, meanwhile, appears to confirm the warnings raised by numerous cybersecurity experts who fear that the American infrastructure is vulnerable to ransomware and other attacks.
Ransomware attacks on the rise
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 attack on Colonial was considered serious enough for President Joe Biden to be briefed, the White House planning to work with local authorities to lay out plans for addressing any shortages that might develop. But any effort to bypass the pipeline could be hampered by the lack of fuel truck drivers.
“Ransomware is the most common disruptive event that organizations are seeing right now that would cause them to shut down to prevent the spread,” Dave White, president of cybersecurity firm Axio, told USA Today.
The Biden White House earlier this year launched a 100-day initiative aimed at developing ways for infrastructure operators to quickly determine if they’re coming under a cyberattack and then find ways to respond in real time to prevent damage.
As for the problems caused by the attack on Colonial, GasBuddy analyst De Haan stressed that there currently is plenty of fuel available for East Coast motorists. He warned that panic buying, however, could lead to spot shortages and other problems.