© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Holding tanks are seen at Colonial Pipeline’s Linden Junction Tank Farm in Woodbridge, New Jersey, U.S. in an undated photograph. Colonial Pipeline/Handout via REUTERS./File Photo
By Stephanie Kelly
(Reuters) -Fuel shortages worsened in the southeastern United States on Wednesday, as the shutdown of the largest U.S. fuel pipeline network entered its sixth day and gasoline stations ran out of supply in some cities.
A ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline last week halted 2.5 million barrels per day of fuel shipments in the most disruptive cyberattack on U.S. energy infrastructure. The pipeline stretches 5,500 miles (8,850 km) from U.S. Gulf Coast oil refineries to consumers in Mid-Atlantic and Southeast states.
In Washington, D.C., top Biden administration officials met late Tuesday to discuss the incident and were considering ways to alleviate gasoline supply shortages, the White House said. Congressional committee members have asked that a White House interagency task force provide a formal briefing to discuss the federal response to the cyberattack.
Privately owned Colonial Pipeline manually opened portions of the line to release needed supplies in Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey and the Carolinas. It has accepted 2 million barrels of fuel to begin a restart that would “substantially” restore operations by week’s end, the company said.
The supply crunch, amid panic buying by motorists, has brought long lines and high prices at gas stations ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend at the end of this month, which traditionally marks the start of the peak summer driving season.
The average national gasoline price rose to above $3.00 a gallon on Wednesday, the highest since 2014, the American Automobile Association said.
Nearly 60% of gas stations in metro Atlanta were without gasoline on Wednesday and more than 70% of stations were out in metro Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, tracking firm GasBuddy said. The states of Virginia and South Carolina also saw relatively high outages.
“This place is dead closed,” said Charles Staples, a 31-year-old banker, after circling rows of shut fuel pumps in his Volvo at an Atlanta station. “I heard about the thing, but I just thought they’d be long lines or something.”
In Raleigh, the last few stores with gas were those along major thoroughfares, said Todd Sloan, a general contractor. “Those that have fuel have very long lines,” he said.
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. DarkSide is believed to be based in Russia or Eastern Europe.
Russia’s embassy in the United States rejected speculation that Moscow was behind the attack. President Joe Biden on Monday said there was no evidence so far that Russia was responsible.
MORE FREQUENT ATTACKS
It is unknown how much money the hackers are seeking, and Colonial has not commented on whether it would pay.
“Cyber attacks on our nation’s infrastructure are growing more sophisticated, frequent and aggressive,” Brandon Wales, acting director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said at a Senate hearing on Tuesday on the SolarWinds hack that came to light in December and hit companies and government agencies.
Gulf Coast refiners that rely on the Colonial Pipeline to move fuel to market have cut processing. Total SE 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 its Lake Charles refinery and “exploring alternate supply methods into other impacted markets.” Marathon Petroleum (NYSE:), another large refiner, said it was “making adjustments” to its operations due to the pipeline shutdown.