HOUSTON – Drivers scrambled to refuel their vehicles at gas stations in the southeast on Tuesday in a panic frenzy that left thousands of gas stations out of gas because of an important fuel line stretching 5,500 miles from Texas New Jersey stretches largely shut down after last week’s ransomware attack.
The shutdown has also left the airlines vulnerable. Several said they were flying on jet fuel to make sure the service wasn’t disrupted.
Gasoline in Georgia and several other states rose 3 to 10 cents a gallon on Tuesday, a price surge normally only seen when hurricanes disrupt refining and pipeline operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
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 automotive group. A gallon of gasoline rose, on average, nearly 7 cents in South Carolina and 6 cents in North Carolina, while gasoline in Virginia rose about 3 cents per gallon. Gas stations in the southern states were selling two to three times their normal amount of gasoline on Tuesday, according to the Oil Price Information Service, an organization tracking the oil sector. Some stations are running out of fuel while others limit purchases to 10 gallons.
Gas Buddy, a service that tracks gas prices, reported that nearly 8 percent of gas stations in Virginia ran out of gas, due more to panic buying than a lack of gas.
The heads of state responded with measures to keep the flow of fuel stable and to stabilize prices.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed an executive order suspending his state’s gasoline tax by Saturday, which is approximately 20 cents a gallon. He said the move would “help level the price for a while,” and warned of panic buying, which he felt was unnecessary. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam each declared a state of emergency to suspend some regulations governing the transportation of fuel.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced that he was ready to administer the state’s price cut law, making excessive congestion a criminal offense. “I urge everyone to be careful and patient,” said Wilson. “I urge citizens to remain vigilant and notify my office immediately if they think they are witnessing or are aware of price cuts.”
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan on Tuesday issued an emergency air-fuel waiver to alleviate fuel shortages in states whose gasoline supplies are affected by the pipeline shutdown, including the District of Columbia, Maryland , Pennsylvania and Virginia. The waiver will continue until May 18.
Colonial Pipeline, the company that operates the pipeline, hopes to restore most operations by the end of the week. The attack carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation by an organized crime group called DarkSide exposed the vulnerability of the American energy system. The pipeline supplies the eastern United States with nearly half of its transportation fuel.
Industry analysts said the impact would be relatively minor as long as the artery is fully restored soon. “With a solution to the shutdown in sight, the cyberattack is now being treated as a minor disruption by the market and prices are reducing panic gains on Monday,” said Louise Dickson, oil market analyst at Rystad Energy.
Gasoline prices usually go up at this time of year as the summer driving season approaches. Even before the Colonial Pipeline ceased operations, average national gas prices rose nearly a cent per gallon every day.
Higher fuel prices affect workers and people on lower incomes the most, as they spend the highest percentage of their income on gasoline and tend to drive less efficient vehicles. This makes rising gasoline prices a potential political problem after several years of relatively low prices at the pump.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki made a statement Monday evening that President Biden is monitoring fuel shortages in the southeast.
Several airports in the south and in the Washington region could be affected in the next few days as they are connected to the pipeline and usually only have a few days of supply.
The interstate pipeline system for supplying airports with jet fuel had become increasingly vulnerable to costly disruptions in recent years, the industry trading group Airlines for America said in a 2018 report. And if there are disruptions, airlines have few options other than flying on extra fuel, stopping flights or canceling and rerouting flights altogether.
“Pipelines play a vital role in supplying our nation with jet fuel and ensuring air service – for passengers and cargo – for communities large and small,” said the group at the time. “Unfortunately, our national pipeline system is fragile today.”
After the disruption last weekend, American Airlines announced that two daily flights from Charlotte, NC One, to Honolulu, Dallas, where customers will switch planes, have been halted. The other, to London, will stop in Boston to refuel. Flights are expected to return to their original flight schedules on Saturday. Southwest Airlines said it was flying to Nashville on extra fuel and United Airlines said it was flying extra fuel to Baltimore; Nashville; Savannah, Ga .; and Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina. United, Southwest and Delta Air Lines said they had not detected any operational disruptions so far.
Gillian Friedman contributed to the coverage.