North America’s biggest petroleum pipeline is in a race against time to overcome paralyzing cyberattacks as gas station supplies dwindled and North Carolina declared a state of emergency with cars lining up for fuel.
Colonial Pipeline said it’s manually operating a segment of the pipeline running from North Carolina to Maryland and expects to substantially restore all service by the weekend. The pledge may not come fast enough to avert immediate shortages in the southeast, where gas station employees are already reporting lines for fuel.
Stations in Asheville, North Carolina, are out of fuel and lines are forming at outlets that still have supplies. David Marcos, an employee at a Royal Dutch Shell Plc-owner station in the city said they ran out of gasoline and diesel earlier today
The Marathon gas station in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, had roughly two dozen cars waiting to fuel up, said Channs Arnett, an employee there. The stations in town are all packed, Arnett said over the phone, where the doorbell chimes from people entering could be heard every other minute.
The conduit has been shut down since late Friday, prompting frenzied moves by traders and retailers to secure alternative supplies. Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation pointed the finger at a ransomware gang known as DarkSide. The pipeline hasn’t suffered any physical damage and no fuel shortages have been detected, a White House official said.
Colonial Chief Executive Officer Joe Blount and a top lieutenant assured Deputy Energy Secretary David Turk and state-level officials today that the company has complete operational control of the pipeline and won’t restart shipments until the ransomware has been neutralized.
In an 18-minute virtual meeting, Blount said shortages may develop in some markets but said Colonial is working with refiners, marketers and retailers to prevent those, according to a person involved with the meeting who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the discussion.
The pipeline serves 90 U.S. military installations and 26 oil refineries, the person said. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden said Russia has “some responsibility” to address the attack.
Emergency shipments of gasoline and diesel from Texas already are on the way to Atlanta and other southeast cities via trucks, and at least two Gulf Coast refineries began trimming output amid expectations that supplies will begin backing up in the nation’s oil-refining nexus. Airlines flying out of Philadelphia International Airport are burning through jet-fuel reserves and will need to locate new supplies “soon,” a spokeswoman said.
Government officials haven’t advised Colonial on whether it ought to pay the ransom, Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Technologies Anne Neuberger said during a briefing.
NEW YORK PRICES
The national average retail gasoline price rose to $2.967 a gallon today, a 2.4% increase from Friday, according to AAA. The premium for wholesale gasoline in the New York area expanded to its widest in three months.
The attack came just as the nation’s energy industry was preparing to meet stronger fuel demand from summer travel. Americans are once again commuting to the office and booking flights after a year in lockdown. Depending on the duration of the disruption, retail prices could spike, further stoking fears of inflation as commodity prices rally worldwide.
DarkSide said in a post on the dark web that it wasn’t to blame and hinted that an affiliate group may have been behind the attack. The group promised to do a better job of screening customers that buy its malware.
Gasoline futures that initially surged as much as 4.2% in overnight trading surrendered most of those gains today.
Convenience-store chains in places like Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia, began clamoring for emergency fuel deliveries on Friday afternoon, said Steve Boyd, senior managing director at Houston-based distributor Sun Coast Resources Inc.
Landlocked cities face the greatest danger of fuel shortages compared with those with access to water-borne deliveries, Boyd said. If the pipeline remains down for many more days, he’s anticipating a “massive surge” in orders. Sun Coast, which operates about 900 trucks, has delivered emergency supplies during 75 major storms over the past 15 years, including during hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017.
Gasoline for June delivery settled little changed at $2.1334 a gallon in New York. Futures prices have gained more than 50% this year, helped by the recovery from the worst effects of the pandemic.
Prior to Colonial’s today statement, traders were seeking vessels to deliver fuel to coastal terminals. Four vessels were provisionally chartered to send diesel or gasoline from Europe to the U.S. Atlantic Coast, according to Danish oil-product tanker company Torm A/S.
Some tankers are also being secured to temporarily store gasoline along the Gulf Coast, according to market participants who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. Meanwhile, Total SE scaled back activity in a key unit at its Port Arthur, Texas, refinery because of the Colonial shutdown, according to a person familiar with operations. Citgo Petroleum Corp. took similar measures at its Lake Charles, La., plant.
Colonial halted all operations on its system late Friday after suffering a ransomware attack that affected some of its IT systems.
The event is just the latest example of critical infrastructure being targeted by ransomware. Hackers are increasingly attempting to infiltrate essential services such as electric grids and hospitals. The escalating threats prompted the White House to respond last month with a plan to increase security at utilities and their suppliers. Pipelines are a specific concern because of the central role they play in the U.S. economy.
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort right now,” said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. “We are working closely with the company, state and local officials to make sure that they get back up to normal operations as quickly as possible and there aren’t disruptions in supply.”
The White House pulled together an inter-agency task force to address the breach, including exploring options for lessening its impact, according to an official. Biden can invoke an array of emergency powers to ensure supplies keep flowing to big cities and airports along the East Coast.
Some rules curbing domestic transportation of fuel have been eased to help deal with any shortages. That doesn’t extend to waiving Jones Act, a measure that would allow foreign tankers to help shuffle more petroleum products between U.S. ports.
Colonial has the capacity to send about 2.5 million barrels (105 million gallons) a day from Houston as far as North Carolina, and another 900,000 barrels a day to New York.
Ransomware cases involve hackers seeding networks with malicious software that encrypts the data and leaves the machines locked until the victims pay the extortion fee. This would be the biggest attack of its kind on a U.S. fuel pipeline.
With gasoline inventories ample, pump prices weren’t expected to tick much higher until Memorial Day at the end of May, which is traditionally viewed as the start of the U.S. summer driving season. If the pipeline doesn’t restart soon it will accelerate the move higher.
“Atlanta will be one of the earlier sore spots, along with eastern Tennessee, and perhaps the Carolinas,” said Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.
The Northeast can secure gasoline shipments from Europe but it will come at an increasing cost the longer the pipeline stays shut. The fuel’s premium to crude in northwest Europe had jumped by more than 5% in intra-day trading earlier today but was still down week-on-week.
In the meantime, fuel producers including Marathon Petroleum Corp. are weighing alternatives for how to ship their products to the Northeast.
One potential route is the Kinder Morgan-operated Plantation Pipeline, even though it only extends as far north Washington D.C. and has a capacity of 720,000 barrels a day, far short of Colonial’s. Kinder said Sunday it’s working with customers to accommodate additional barrels during Colonial’s outage, and that Plantation is deferring where possible any non-essential maintenance that might otherwise reduce flow rates.
While all of the major segments of Colonial’s system remain offline, some smaller so-called laterals connecting specific fuel terminals to delivery points are in service, the company said earlier.
Inventories offer minimal cover, ClearView Energy Partners said in a research note. Tankers leaving Rotterdam could take up to 14 days to make the trip to the New York Harbor. The Midwest could theoretically send some of its supplies to the East Coast via rail and barge, but the region’s inventories are tighter than in previous years, ClearView said.
“The Colonial outage comes at a critical juncture for the recovering U.S. economy: the start of the summer driving season,” ClearView said. “We therefore think lawmakers could begin a ‘blame game’ immediately, and a sustained disruption that leads to a significant pump price spike could increase prospects of domestic policy interventions.”