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Despite pipeline restart, thousands of gas stations remain dry

The Colonial Pipeline has been restarted, the company said Wednesday evening — though customers "may experience, or continue to experience, intermittent service interruptions."
Image: A woman fills gas cans at a Speedway gas station on May 12, 2021 in Benson, N.C.
A woman fills gas cans at a Speedway gas station on May 12, 2021 in Benson, N.C.Sean Rayford / Getty Images

After five days of a shutdown due to a cyberattack, the Colonial Pipeline has been restarted, the company said Wednesday evening — though customers "may experience, or continue to experience, intermittent service interruptions," the company advised.

Major gas shortages broke out in some Southeastern states Wednesday as the shutdown sparked a rush on gas as thousands of service stations reported running out of fuel.

The run-up was enough to squeeze prices at the national level. Average gas prices broke above $3 a gallon Wednesday morning for the first time since 2014. The national average retail price is now $3.008, according to data from AAA auto group.

Panic at the pump

Images circulated on social media of people hoarding gas and filling up all manner of unsuitable containers, prompting the U.S. Product Safety Commission to warn customers: Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline. Instead, drivers should only use approved containers.

"Just because you have something with a lid doesn’t mean you need to fill it with fuel,” Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives at NACS, the leading trade group for convenience and fuel retailing, told CNN.

“Demand has been two to four times normal in many markets and the system, even when it isn’t stressed, can’t support that,” Lenard said of the rush to the pump.

Tensions are running high at gas stations as consumers race to fill up. Two people in Knightdale, North Carolina, were charged with assault Tuesday, after a man and a women spat at each other and caused a disturbance while fighting over spots in the gas station line.

Depleted inventory

As of Wednesday afternoon, 65 percent of gas stations in all of North Carolina were out of gas, according to Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, an app that tracks fuel. Over 40 percent of stations are out in Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. And over 10 percent of stations are dry in Florida, Maryland, and Tennessee.

Prices are even higher in specific locales. Outages neared 80 percent in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and topped 70 percent in Pensacola, Florida and Charlotte, North Carolina, according to GasBuddy.

Earlier this week, energy experts said the worst response from the public would be to hoard gasoline, which could squeeze supply even more in the short term and distort consumption behavior in a way that could cause unintended consequences.

"If panic buying kicks in, prices could rise further well over the $3 level, but until the pipeline operator can say the line is up and running, the backlog will build and concern will remain," John Hall, chairman of the London-based Alfa Energy Group, warned on Monday.

How we got here

The Colonial Pipeline, the country’s largest artery for transporting fuel, shut down all its operations Friday after hackers broke in to some of its networks. The federal government issued a rare emergency declaration on Sunday after the cyberattack.

The successful hack exposed gaping holes in U.S. cyber defenses, experts say. Colonial brought in a top breach response company, Mandiant, to assess the damage, repair and shore up its networks. Law enforcement is waiting for the results of their forensic investigation to move forward in their response.

"Right now we are waiting for additional technical information on exactly what happened at Colonial so that we can use that information to potentially protect other potential victims down the road," Acting FBI Director Brandon Wales testified at a Senate Homeland Security Committee Tuesday.

How it's being resolved

Colonial Pipeline said Wednesday evening it had "initiated the restart of pipeline operations today at approximately 5 p.m. ET. Following this restart, it will take several days for the product delivery supply chain to return to normal."

Colonial has already opened additional lateral lines under manual control to help deliver oil already in the system while the main line remains shut and worked with shipping companies to move fuel onto tankers to deliver 41 million gallons throughout its system, including hard-hit areas in Georgia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Colonial has also taken delivery of 2 million barrels from refineries ready to enter the pipeline when the lines start up again.

What to do

The Department of Energy advises drivers during temporary fuel shortages to be patient and only purchase what they need for their short-term needs.

Following the speed limit, driving smoothly, and avoiding hard acceleration and braking will improve fuel economy, according to testing by Consumer Reports, the nonprofit research, testing and advocacy organization.

Drivers should also check that their tire pressure meets manufacturer recommended PSI, remove roof racks not in use, and minimize A/C use to increase mileage, the organization said.

“Anticipate the road ahead. If you’ll be stopping at an upcoming light or stop sign, let off the gas early and coast up to it if it’s safe to do so,” said Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal, in an email.

Gas tracking apps, like GasBuddy and Waze, can show which gas stations nearby have supply so motorists can plan before driving around looking for gas. Stations away from highways and city centers will tend to have better prices, as will warehouse centers.

“There is not data showing that the gasoline shortage will worsen due to supply-side issues,” said Kelly Goldsmith, associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, in an email. “And demand-side issues are under our control – we do not have to hoard gasoline.”

What's next

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, along with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, are set to brief the House and Senate on Wednesday night on the administration’s response to the situation.

The Department of Transportation also said Tuesday the agency has been considering temporarily waiving the Jones Act in order to help relieve supply pressures. Signed in 1920, the law requires vessels ferrying goods between two U.S. points be all-American: built, crewed and flagged. Temporarily lifting it would allow foreign tankers to carry U.S. fuel and deliver it into U.S. ports.