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Gasoline-buying fever rages as pipeline company begins restart

Customers push a van to the pump as a line for fuel forms at a gas station in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.


HOUSTON — Anxious drivers circled from one filling station to another, gasoline prices rose, and thousands of stations were out of fuel in the Southeast on Wednesday as a ransomware attack continued to cripple a vital fuel pipeline.

There was a sign of relief late Wednesday when the operator of the pipeline, which transports gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from Texas to New Jersey, said it had “initiated the restart” of operations. But the company, Colonial Pipeline, said supplies would take several days to return to normal.

Since the pipeline was shut down Friday, the uncertainty about supplies has prompted a growing frenzy among motorists determined to fill up.

Gasoline prices in Georgia and a few other states rose 8 to 10 cents a gallon Wednesday alone, a jump not usually seen without a major hurricane shutting down refineries. At some stations, people were filling up gasoline cans, forcing others to wait longer and causing shouting matches.

On a chilly, rainy Wednesday morning in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, almost all the gas stations lacked fuel, their pumps covered with yellow plastic bags, some saying simply “Out of gas.”

Lines of 20 to 25 cars waited at the few stations operating, and even they did not have premium blends. The manager of one station said she had received a small truck shipment only the hour before but expected to run out of fuel in an hour because of the deluge of customers.

“I’m feeling quite desperate about the gas situation and disheartened by the hoarding of it,” said Amanda BenDor, 41, a Chapel Hill resident who works for a national nonprofit, as she filled up her SUV. She was planning a weekend trip to Georgia to visit relatives she had not seen since before the pandemic. But the first station she drove to Wednesday morning ran out of fuel just before her turn, forcing her to drive to a second station and wait a half-hour to get to the pump.

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At the White House, officials moved from assurances that they were seeing no disruptions to assurances that they were taking rapid steps to make it easier to transport fuel by ship, rail or truck. But they acknowledged that those steps would take time, and clearly they were hoping the pipeline would resume operations before they had to invoke their backup systems.

An internal assessment of potential impact, drawn up by the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security, predicted far larger problems if the pipeline did not get flowing in the next three to five days. Mass transit, especially buses that require diesel fuel, would be affected, along with the nation’s ability to produce chemicals. At 10 days, it predicted, airlines could grind to a halt, especially because the Atlanta airport, an international hub, would not be able to get flights in the air.

“There will be lag time between Colonial Pipeline reopening and increases in fuel availability for general public,” the assessment warned. It noted that the fuel “travels through the pipeline at 5 mph” and would take “approximately two weeks to travel from the Gulf Coast to New York.”

The FBI said the ransomware attack had been carried out by an organized crime group, DarkSide, which is believed to operate from Eastern Europe, possibly Russia. While the attack was not on the pipeline itself, Colonial shut down both its information systems and the pipeline until it was sure it could safely manage the flow of fuel.

The company has refused to say whether it had paid a ransom or was considering doing so. On Wednesday, administration officials said they believed the company was avoiding paying the ransom, at least for now. Instead, they said, the company was trying to reconstruct its systems with a patchwork of backed-up data.

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Cabinet members held a series of briefings to describe efforts to get freight trains, trucks and more ships into what amounted to a complex bucket brigade to bring fuel up the East Coast.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, facing his first crisis in the job, said the episode was a test of the nation’s ability to secure its infrastructure.

“We need to make sure our infrastructure is resilient to climate security issues caused by the increased frequency and severity of weather events,” he said. “But we also need to be sure that we are resilient in the face of cyberthreats.”

He said the United States had now had “two major wake-up calls,” starting with the power failures that followed a winter storm in Texas in February.

Energy and marketing experts say the rush to buy gas was partly justified and partly a case of mass psychology.

“A lot of people are comparing this to the toilet paper hoarding of a year ago,” said Kelly Goldsmith, a Vanderbilt University marketing professor. “Once the dominoes start to fall, the pace picks up fast and furious.”

Goldsmith drove to two stations around Nashville, Tennessee, to fill up Wednesday morning, even though she had half a tank and usually waits for the gauge to go down to nearly empty. After a text message from her husband urged her to fill up, “I thought, I don’t want to be the last one in line at the gas station,” she said. “So now I am part of the problem.”

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Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, a Houston consulting firm, said emergency declarations by the governors of Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida prompted people to think, “It must be really bad, and let’s go fill up.”

Colonial Pipeline said it was managing to deliver some fuel to Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey and the Carolinas, but gasoline prices continued to rise across the region. While the pipeline’s automated controls are shut down, company operators are pushing buttons and valves to move fuels from one pumping station to the next, 50 to 75 miles away. It is a laborious process and has resulted in slower movement than usual.

Tanker trucks are moving fuel in a 12-hour trip from Houston to Atlanta. Since the largest tanker trucks hold only 250 barrels, it would take roughly 1,000 trucks to fill all of Georgia’s filling stations. Seaborne vessels are beginning to deliver cargoes, and initial shipments from Europe, Latin America and Canada to U.S. ports can be expected to arrive in the next few days.

Gulf Coast refineries have not stopped production, and they are chartering and loading domestic and foreign tanker vessels for storage. The Biden administration is considering waiving the Jones Act, which prohibits foreign vessels from delivering products from one domestic port to another. It can take up to four days to ship fuel from the Gulf of Mexico to Savannah, Georgia, or Norfolk, Virginia.

Drivers offered a variety of reasons for the shortage, with some blaming President Joe Biden for the rising gasoline prices.

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“This is just stupid,” said Larry Jones, a fiberglass technician waiting to fill up in Folly Beach, South Carolina, where he was on vacation. “We were doing good. We build everything back thanks to Trump and his party, and now look at it.”

Others saw the cyberattack as a sign that the country’s infrastructure is vulnerable.

“I’m not surprised, because of the cyberattacks in the past,” Jim Nicolai, 71, said as he tried to fill up at a bustling convenience store in Greenville, South Carolina. Smiling, he added, “And our good friends in Russia.” Nicolai clicked and clicked several times before the pump dripped a mere quarter-gallon into his Toyota Prius.

Nicolai said that he was trying to drive back to Charleston, three hours away, for his wife’s birthday but that he could not find any fuel the night before in nearby Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he owns a condo. He said his nephew in Greenville would lend him a car if necessary.

Bob Stock, 70, a retired customs broker, was down to a quarter tank in his Honda Civic. He needed more gas, he said, to get to a doctor’s appointment in Lawrenceville, Georgia, about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta. He said he was not surprised by the rash of buying.

“It’s like the early days of the pandemic,” he said. “Everyone’s just freaked out.”

A number of Atlanta drivers said they had heard about the gas shortage from friends or online. Some pulled into gas stations desperate, with their gauges closer to E than they would have liked. Others were filling up just to be safe.

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Christina Wedge, 43, said her boss at an artisanal salt company had told her about the shortages Wednesday morning and advised her to fill up her half-full Honda Element if she could. Wedge, a nursing student, said she had not followed the news because of an intense study schedule and was not sure exactly what was going on.

“Why do they have to shut everything down, then, with the gas?” she asked a reporter as she filled up at a Texaco station.

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