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Biden admin discussed using military fuel stockpile, National Guard to respond to Colonial Pipeline hack

The options presented by the Pentagon could be reconsidered if the crisis lasts well beyond early next week, said people familiar with the conversations.
Image: Cyberattack Forces Shutdown Of Major U.S. Fuel Pipeline
A fuel holding tank at Colonial Pipeline's Linden Junction Tank Farm in Woodbridge, N.J., on May 10, 2021.Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Before Colonial Pipeline Co. announced Wednesday it would restart operations, the Biden administration discussed calling in the U.S. military to help.

In the immediate aftermath of the ransomware attack and shutdown of the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., the White House was so concerned about widespread, prolonged gas delivery disruptions and shortages that officials solicited a broad range of options from agencies across the government to try to mitigate the crisis, according to four people familiar with the discussions.

Among the options was the possibility of using the military to assist, including potentially relying on its stockpile of fuel or mobilizing the National Guard, these people said. Ultimately, White House officials concluded they didn’t need to take such steps for now, opting instead for some less drastic measures and setting a deadline of early next week for when they believe the crisis will be largely resolved, the people familiar with the discussions said. The options presented by the Pentagon could be reconsidered if the crisis persists well beyond then or a new threat emerges, they added.

The Colonial Pipeline shutdown was the result of one of the most disruptive cyberattacks in history, halting fuel deliveries along the East Coast and leading to widespread panic buying and empty pumps.

Speaking about the Colonial Pipeline shutdown from the White House this week, President Joe Biden warned it could be several days before gas stations are restocked, saying "It's not like flicking on a light switch." He said he expects gas supplies to recover in the next few days. "I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful, but this is a temporary situation."

One senior administration official said there were discussions about deploying the National Guard, but they were never serious.

But one of the people with knowledge of the conversations at the White House said that if this crisis had continued into next week, the military could have been called in to assist.

Image: vehicles line up to enter a gasoline station during surge in demand for fuel in Durham, North Carolina
A motorist peers from his truck as he waits in a line of vehicles queuing up to enter a gasoline station in Durham, North Carolina, on May 12, 2021.Jonathan Drake / Reuters

In a statement, a Pentagon spokesperson said, "The president has not directed the Department of Defense to assist with gas shortages in relation to the Colonial Pipeline shutdown."

In response to the growing gasoline shortages, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas approved a temporary waiver of the Jones Act, which lifted a restriction that required oil that is moved between U.S. ports to be carried by ships built in the U.S. and staffed by U.S. crews.

"This waiver will help provide for the transport of oil products between the Gulf Coast and East Coast ports to ease oil supply constraints as a result of the interruptions in the operations of the Colonial Pipeline. The decision to approve the waiver was made after careful consideration and consultation with interagency partners across the federal government," Mayorkas said in a statement.

"Earlier this week, President Biden directed a whole of government response to address the impacts of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown. This limited waiver is part of that effort," the statement said.

Colonial Pipeline operates the country’s largest fuel pipeline, supplying near half of the fuel consumed on the East Coast. The company shut down its operations last Friday after a Russian criminal element known as DarkSide infected their financial networks with ransomware, shutting Colonial out of their own systems and demanding payments to restore access.

Colonial restarted operations five days later, but the disruption caused gasoline outages and price spikes. A U.S. official familiar with the matter tells NBC News that Colonial paid the cyber criminals nearly $5 million in ransom.