Throughout the Southeast on Tuesday, long lines of panicked drivers overwhelmed thousands of gas stations in a scramble to fuel their vehicles.
The frenzy across the region was brought on by the rising prices of gas, which contributed to fears of shortages following a ransomware attack that caused a vital fuel pipeline to remain largely shut down.
But is there any real cause for concern? Here’s what to know about the situation.
What spurred the panic-buying of gas in the Southeast?
The mad dash to buy gas in the Southeast was brought on by the disruption to the Colonial Pipeline, which stretches 5,500 miles from Texas to New Jersey. The system moves about 45 percent of the East Coast’s fuel and was shut down on Friday after hackers — thought to be based in the former Soviet Union — infiltrated servers and encrypted its data, demanding a fee to restore access.
As a result, consumers are now seeing some of the fallout as Colonial Pipeline officials work to resume service by the week’s end. Gas stations in the South — from Virginia to South Carolina — were reporting dry pumps on Tuesday.
An oil analyst told the Washington Post that fuel demands in those states had spiked 40 percent, and cautioned motorists against panic-buying, which will only exacerbate the shortages. But many motorists did not listen. According to the analyst, the shutdown will have implications on both gasoline supply and prices.
States that are most likely to experience the impacts are Mississippi and Tennessee, as well as states ranging from Georgia to Delaware, according to an AAA spokeswoman. These places could see prices increase three to seven cents this week.
Photo from a friend but yeah people in Virginia are LOSING THEIR NOODLES over this gas shortage which isn't really a gas shortage. Where are you driving in the next few days that you need what looks like 35 gallons of spare gasoline within reach in jerrycans??? pic.twitter.com/8UvMZWNaEi— Justin (@justintbrown) May 11, 2021
What exactly happened with the Colonial Pipeline? And why does it matter?
The Colonial Pipeline carries fuel from Gulf Coast refineries to customers on the East Coast. The company says the pipeline provides fuel for 50 million Americans and several major airports — or nearly half of the Eastern United States’ gasoline and jet fuel.
The FBI confirmed on Monday that the Eastern Europe-based hacking group DarkSide was responsible for carrying out the ransomware attack. It is believed that DarkSide was a “criminal actor,” although the Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies is reportedly investigating whether the group might have any connections to nation states, according to a government official.
Colonial has not sought out cyber support from the government, nor could it be confirmed if the private corporation has paid any ransom. Meanwhile, Colonial has remained silent about the issue for the most part. The company has not answered questions about the kind of protections it had in place on both the industrial controls that run the pipeline and its computer networks.
Ransomware attackers are increasingly targeting industrial sectors because these firms are more willing to pay to regain control of their systems, with roughly 43 percent of infrastructure organizations submitting to ransom demands — more than any other industry — when victimized by such attacks, according to the Sophos 2021 “State of Ransomware” report.
Infrastructure is an “easy and lucrative target,” Dan Schiappa, Sophos chief product officer, told the Post. The attack on the Colonial Pipeline system, which was installed in the 1970s, highlights the vulnerabilities of America’s aging infrastructure.
When is the ordeal with the Colonial Pipeline expected to be resolved? What is the risk of the situation getting even worse?
Colonial Pipeline has said that it hopes to restore most operations by the end of the week.
The company said late Tuesday that it had manually started one part of the pipeline and delivered about 41 million gallons of fuel to various locations on its system, from Atlanta, through the Carolinas, and to Linden, N.J.
Industry analysts told the New York Times that the impact of the hacking would remain relatively minor as long as the system was fully restored soon.
Colonial has indicated to the White House that the company will be in a position to make a “full restart decision” by Wednesday evening. But even after the decision is made, it may take a few days for operations to start up again.
What has the White House said about what’s unfolding? How is the Biden administration responding?
The White House said it was monitoring the situation in the Southeast and trying to mitigate the effects and manage fuel supplies. The cyberattack prompted the administration to form a task force, and the Transportation Department temporarily relaxed rules to allow greater flexibility on fuel transport.
The Biden administration is also reportedly prepared “if necessary” to waive the Jones Act, which forbids foreign-flagged ships from carrying cargoes between US ports. The Federal Railroad Administration is analyzing the possibility of shipping gasoline or jet fuel by train.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency waiver for fuel air emissions on Tuesday to help alleviate fuel shortages in places affected by the pipeline shutdown, including Pennsylvania and Virginia. The waiver will continue through next Tuesday.
The Biden administration is moving to ease fuel shortages caused by the Colonial Pipeline hack.— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) May 11, 2021
“We know that we have gasoline, we just have to get it to the right places,” @SecGranholm said, suggesting it’s not a shortage but a “supply crunch” https://t.co/53qR053wdO pic.twitter.com/v6qptVnJHf
How much has the price of gas risen nationally? What states are currently affected?
The national average for a gallon of regular gasoline rose 2 cents on Tuesday, with higher prices reported in the Southeast, according to the AAA motor club. The average increase was nearly 7 cents in South Carolina, 6 cents in North Carolina, and 3 cents in Virginia. On Wednesday morning, the current average was just over $3.
State leaders responded with measures intended to keep the flow of fuel steady and stabilize prices. As of Tuesday, governors in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Virginia had declared states of emergency and taken steps to relax fuel transport rules to ease pain at the pump.
More than 7 percent of gas stations in Virginia, 8 percent in North Carolina, and 5 percent in Georgia were without fuel late Tuesday afternoon. A number of stations in Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina also reported dry pumps, according to the Post.
Could the impact of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown be felt in New England?
In short — New England, and Massachusetts in particular, is not likely to see the same effects of the pipeline shutdown as the Southeast.
Only about one-third of New England’s transportation fuel supply depends on the Colonial Pipeline. The majority of the transportation fuel in the region comes from a refinery in Nova Scotia and other waterborne imports.
Gas prices may rise in New England, as the AAA reported on Monday was likely to happen as a result of the shutdown, but the hikes are not expected to be significant nor are gas shortages expected.
In Massachusetts, the average price of gas has risen to $2.88 — 7 cents more than a week ago, and almost a dollar more than the average cost a year ago, which was $1.95. But gasoline prices normally increase at this time of year as the summer driving season approaches. And prior to the shutdown of the pipeline, average national gas prices were rising nearly a penny per gallon each day, the Times reported.
Material from the New York Times and the Washington Post was used in this report. Jon Chesto of Globe staff contributed to this report.