The White House stepped in Tuesday after concerns of fuel shortages along the East Coast prompted long lines at gas stations and emergency declarations in some states after a ransomware attack against a major fuel pipeline ground its operations to a halt.
The Colonial Pipeline, a major U.S. fuel pipeline along the East Coast, was hit by a cyberattack on Friday. The company halted operations after revealing a ransomware attack that it said had affected some of its systems.
The pipeline delivers about 45% of the fuel consumed on the East Coast. It plays a key role in transporting gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and other petroleum products from Texas all the way to the Northeast.
On Tuesday, there were reports of gas stations in the Southeast running out of gasoline, according to Gasbuddy.com, which tracks outages and prices. In Virginia, 7.5% of the state’s 3,880 gas stations reported running out of fuel. In North Carolina, 5.4% of 5,372 stations were out, the company said.
Colonial Pipeline, headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia, had restored some fuel delivery Tuesday, but the main artery of the pipeline remained shut down. Colonial said Monday that it anticipates the majority of its service will be restored by the end of the week.
Fuel holding tanks are seen at Colonial Pipeline's Linden Junction Tank Farm on May 10, 2021 in Woodbridge, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden announced an "all of government" response Tuesday in the wake of the cyber attack.
"The recent cyberattack targeting the Colonial Pipeline has triggered a comprehensive federal response focused on securing critical energy supply chains," the White House said in a statement. "President Biden is receiving regular briefings on the incident and has directed agencies across the Federal Government to bring their resources to bear to help alleviate shortages where they are occurring."
The White House said it has formed an interagency response to monitor the situation and ensure the flow of fuel continues. The agencies include the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
So far, the group has discussed various options to mitigate the effects of the attack such as moving fuel by trucks or marine vessels. The DOE and FBI are also in talks with pipeline operators to provide assistance.
To help alleviate potential shortages, the Environmental Protection Agency also waived some fuel quality requirements on an emergency basis in parts of Washington D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
North Carolina and Georgia also issued waivers to allow higher weight limits for tanker trucks.
At the state level, the governors of Florida, Virginia and North Carolina each declared a state of emergency this week to help ensure a sufficient supply of fuel following a cyberattack. They noted their states’ heavy reliance on the pipeline.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also suspended state taxes on motor fuels through Saturday. Georgia collects a gasoline tax of 28.7 cents per gallon and a diesel tax of 32.2 cents per gallon.
"It will probably help level the price at the pump off for a little while," Kemp told reporters at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Chamblee, an Atlanta suburb.
However, Kemp urged people not to hoard gasoline, saying he expected the situation to be resolved soon.
Scattered gas stations in metro Atlanta were out of fuel Monday and Tuesday, but most were operating normally. In Georgia, nearly 4% of 6,368 stations had run out of fuel, Gasbuddy.com said. Some gas stations also temporarily closed in the area to take inventory, according to FOX 5 Atlanta.
But industry experts have stressed for drivers not to panic and rush to the gas pump.
"If you don't IMMEDIATELY need gas, our experts recommend you don't fill up. A surge in demand only makes the situation worse," GasBuddy wrote on Twitter.
GasBuddy turned on its fuel availability tracker for drivers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia in response to the pipeline shutdown.
In Florida, just 2% of the gas stations had run out of fuel. Nevertheless, consumers in some areas faced long lines.
Dave Gussak told the Associated Press that he drove from one station to the next in Tallahassee in search of gas without success. After putting a number of miles on his vehicle, he said he saw a line nearly a mile long at the gas pumps outside of a Costco store.
Gussak eventually passed a station with gas on the way to Florida State University where he works. "This is insane," he told the outlet.
The average gasoline price jumped six cents to $2.96 over the past week, and it was expected to continue climbing because of the pipeline closure, AAA said.
Colonial Pipeline forced what it called a precautionary shutdown in response to the attack. U.S. officials said the attack didn’t spread to the critical systems that control the pipeline’s operation, but the mere fact that it could have done so alarmed outside security experts.
On Monday, the FBI named DarkSide as the criminal syndicate whose ransomware was used. The group's members are Russian speakers, and the syndicate’s malware is coded not to attack networks using Russian-language keyboards. Russia, however, denied any involvement in the attack.
Ransomware scrambles data that can only be decoded with a software key after the victim pays off the criminal perpetrators. Hospitals, schools, police departments and state and local governments are regularly hit.
Such attacks are difficult to stop in part because they’re usually launched by criminal syndicates that enjoy safe harbor abroad, mostly in former Soviet states. An epidemic of ransomware attacks has gotten so bad that Biden administration officials recently deemed them a national security threat.
Experts say the attack on the Colonial Pipeline also underscored the vulnerabilities of the nation's energy sector, and other critical industries whose infrastructure is largely privately owned.
"We need to invest to safeguard our critical infrastructure," Biden said Monday. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the attack "tells you how utterly vulnerable we are" to cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.