Colonial Pipeline began to slowly restart the nation’s largest fuel pipeline network on Wednesday after a ransomware attack shut the line, triggering fuel shortages and panic buying in the southeastern United States.
It will take several days for the 5,500 mile pipeline to return to normal operations, Colonial said, even as motorists in southeastern states jammed stations seeking fuel. A return to ample supplies could take two weeks, analysts said.
The cyberattack halted 2.5 million barrels per day of shipments of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel last Friday after the most disruptive cyberattack ever on U.S. energy infrastructure.
Sources familiar with Colonial’s response said the company does not plan to pay the ransom demanded by hackers who encrypted data on the pipeline.
Colonial said it was working with cybersecurity experts to investigate the attack and had taken additional security measures before beginning the restart. The company said its control center is handling the restart of the pipeline, which stretches from refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast to consumers in Mid-Atlantic and Southeast states.
The supply crunch sparked panic buying in the U.S. Southeast, bringing long lines and high prices at gas stations ahead of the peak summer driving season.
Nearly 60% of gas stations in metro Atlanta were without gasoline, tracking firm GasBuddy said. Its survey showed 65% of stations in North Carolina and 43% in Georgia and South Carolina without fuel. Virginia also reported high outages.
‘Our top priority right now is getting the fuel to the communities that need it,’ U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters.
Fuel stocks in the U.S. Northeast will likely hit five-year lows this week as the restart slowly progresses, said S&P Global Platts analyst Richard Joswick. Full recovery ‘will take a couple of weeks at least,’ he added.
At a Citgo station in East Atlanta, Charles Williams, 66, a local musician, filled his wife’s Mini Cooper after seeing people with large jerry cans loading up.
‘I wouldn’t say I know they’re hoarding, but I don’t know if they’re helping,’ he said.
Privately owned Colonial Pipeline opened portions of the line manually in Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey and the Carolinas. It also accepted 2 million barrels of fuel to begin efforts to ‘substantially’ restore operations by week’s end, the company has said.
The average national gasoline price rose to above $3.00 a gallon, the highest since October 2014, the American Automobile Association said.
Motorists line up at an Exxon station selling gas at $3.29 per gallon soon after its fuel supply was replenished in Charlotte, North Carolina on Wednesday
Fuel industry representatives urged consumers to stop panic buying. They noted the country has plenty of gasoline supplies and said hoarding is creating shortages in areas not served by the pipeline.
‘Retailers right now have sold several days worth of inventory within a few hours,’ said Rob Underwood, President of the Energy Marketers of America.
Four southeastern states – Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia – joined federal regulators in relaxing driver and fuel restrictions to speed deliveries of supplies. Georgia suspended sales tax on gasoline until Saturday.
The FBI has accused a shadowy criminal gang called DarkSide of the ransomware attack. The group, believed to be based in Russia or Eastern Europe, has not directly taken credit, but on Wednesday it claimed to have breached systems at three other companies, including an Illinois tech firm.
Russia’s embassy in the United States rejected speculation that Moscow was behind the attack. On Monday, Biden said there was no evidence so far that Russia was responsible.
It was not known how much money the hackers are seeking.
Gulf Coast refiners that move fuel to market on the Colonial Pipeline have cut processing. Total SE (TOTF.PA) trimmed gasoline production at its Port Arthur, Texas, refinery, and Citgo Petroleum pared back at its Lake Charles, Louisiana, plant.
Citgo said it was moving products from Lake Charles and ‘exploring alternate supply methods into other impacted markets.’ Marathon Petroleum said it was ‘making adjustments.’
Several airlines have been transporting fuel by truck or fueling planes at destinations rather than at East Coast origins. American Airlines said it would resume on Thursday non-stop service on two long-haul flights out its Charlotte, North Carolina hub.
Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Ed Bastian said the airline has been told fuel supplies will be available ‘hopefully by the end of the week and as long as those predictions come true hopefully we’ll be OK.’
Long lines of cars wait for gas at a Costco in Atlanta on Wednesday morning, as a gasoline shortage across the southern Atlantic seaboard deepens after a Russian-linked cyberattack on a key oil pipeline
Pipeline hack sends people scrambling for fuel in the South
‘I can´t get paid until my customers get their products,’ said Goldburg as a slow-operating pump filled her tank for more than 20 minutes at a 7-Eleven.
Construction worker Jamar Gatison, 36, was also filling up his tank there Wednesday before he had a doctor´s appointment.
‘I´m about to run out of gas, so I have no choice,’ Gatison said, adding that he is also is an Uber Eats driver but wasn’t planning on delivering food that night because he didn’t want to wait in line again.
Restaurants and bars, which are already struggling to fill job openings, will find themselves particularly squeezed, said Robert McNab, an economics professor at Virginia´s Old Dominion University. Some workers may not be able to come to work. And some customers may abandon plans to eat out.
‘In all likelihood, these service workers will be impacted most significantly, with rising fuel and food prices eating a larger part of their household budgets and income being reduced this month by the fear-induced shortage of gasoline,’ McNab said.
The Colonial Pipeline delivers about 45% of the fuel consumed on the East Coast. There is no gasoline shortage, according to government officials and energy analysts. But there has been a problem getting the fuel from refineries on the Gulf Coast to the states that need it, and officials have been scrambling to find alternate routes to deliver that fuel.
The distribution problems and panic-buying have been draining supplies at thousands of gas stations. On Wednesday, four to five cars were lined up at each pump at a Circle K in Clemmons, North Carolina, a community southwest of Winston-Salem along I-40.
Detlef Badorrek said he drove to four gas stations before he found one where he could fill up his car. He expressed concern that motorists may become a little more unnerved as the situation extends itself.
‘I sense things could go a little bit more desperately as time goes by. So far, it´s reasonable,’ he said.
A huge line forms for gasoline at Costco on Wendover Avenue in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Tuesday. As the shutdown of a major fuel pipeline entered into its fifth day, efforts are under way to stave off potential fuel shortages
But not for everyone, apparently. Two people were charged with assault after a fight over spots in a line at a Marathon gas station in Knightdale, outside Raleigh, on Tuesday afternoon, authorities said.
The man and woman arguing over spots each spat in the other´s face before the fight turned physical and a cellphone was damaged, police said.
Video posted on Instagram shows two cars bumped up against each other at a gas station. The woman was charged with simple assault and the man was charged with assault on a female and damage to personal property, police said. Both were cited and released with a pending court date.
In Walton County, Georgia, paramedic Jeff Lisle had just under a quarter-tank of gas in his Jeep – but no one knew of any stations near his house that had gas. So, he went to his garage and found a small amount in the cans he uses for his lawnmower in case he needed the extra boost to make it to work.
As for the ambulances he works in, ‘we have to buy fuel at gas stations like everybody else does,’ he said. That means that whenever possible, the ambulances have been stopping to refuel when they´re lucky enough to drive past a station with gas.
Along the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine, hikers depend on car and van shuttles to access the trail and get supplies.
‘Everybody´s out here buying from the same gas pumps, so the lines are long, some are out — you´ve really got to look for it,’ said Ron Brown, who operates Ron´s Appalachian Trail Shuttles and often takes hikers from Atlanta´s airport into the north Georgia mountains..
But he said that hikers are resourceful enough to get where they need to go.
‘It will get rectified because it´s a big deal, and everybody needs gas,’ he said. ‘We´ll just make due until it does.’
A run on gas following a computer hack of the nation´s largest fuel pipeline had North Carolina tow-truck driver Jonathan King worried about whether he could do his job.
‘I drive all over the place,’ King said at a packed gas station outside Winston-Salem on Wednesday. ‘It gets really busy. And yeah, with the fuel going the way it´s going, it´s going to be very hard for us. Hopefully we´ll be able to get through it.’
The cybersecurity attack on the Colonial Pipeline has prompted fuel-hoarding and panic-buying in parts of the Southeastern U.S., striking fear and stress among those who’ve waited in long lines for gas. And while Colonial initiated the restart of pipeline operations late Wednesday, the company said it will take several days for deliveries to return to normal.
The scene at gas stations was far from typical Wednesday after governors of both North Carolina and Virginia declared states of emergency to help ensure supply and access to gas.
As people in the region emerge from the lockdowns and limitations of the coronavirus pandemic, some feared the prospect of lost wages and missed doctors appointments. They also worried about canceling plans with family members who they were only beginning to see again.
Mary Goldburg, 60, of Norfolk, Virginia, said she needs her car for work but also to see her grandchildren – whom she barely got to see last year. Her job includes delivering T-shirts for events and other promotional products.