Don’t panic over fuel shortage from halted pipeline, expert says

FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2016 file photo vehicles are seen near Colonial Pipeline in Helena, Ala. A major pipeline that transports fuels along the East Coast says it had to stop operations because it was the victim of a cyberattack. Colonial Pipeline said in a statement late Friday that it “took certain systems offline to contain the threat, which has temporarily halted all pipeline operations, and affected some of our IT systems.” (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)(AP/Brynn Anderson)

With a critical U.S. pipeline struggling to resume operations after a cyberextortion attempt, an industry expert is tempering fears of a gasoline shortage and spikes in prices — as long as the public doesn’t panic.

Monday marks four days since a major Colonial Pipeline fuel conduit from Texas to the Northeast was forced to shut down due to a ransomware attack now attributed to the criminal group DarkSide.

The Georgia-based company has not provided a time frame for a full system restart, leading to mounting fears that a prolonged shutdown could cause higher prices at the pump along the East Coast. The pipeline feeds about 45% of the East Coast’s demand for a number of fuels, including gasoline and diesel.

But Patrick De Haan, a petroleum analyst with Gas Buddy, said most consumers shouldn’t notice a crunch at the gas pump if the Colonial Pipeline pulls off a full restart relatively soon and motorists don’t get spooked.

“If the pipeline were to restart immediately, there’d be virtually no impact and things would start returning to normal pretty quickly,” De Haan said. “If motorists take the worst case scenario and everyone fills up, the impacts could last several weeks into Memorial Day.”

A mass rush to the pump could add up to 25 cents per gallon or more to current prices, he added. His best advice right now is to avoid topping off tanks until the fuel gets moving once again.

“If motorists can sip fuel instead of chug it, that’s going to make this problem much easier to resolve,” De Haan said.

Phil Flynn, a senior market analyst at the PRICE Futures Group, said fuel prices were running about 2 cents per gallon above average as of Monday morning, down from an initial surge of almost 5 cents a gallon, on optimism that the issue will be resolved fairly soon.

Regardless of short-term impacts to consumers, Flynn said the shutdown exposes a vulnerably in the country’s infrastructure that President Joe Biden must give priority to fixing.

“This is a total nightmare, it goes beyond just oil and gas,” Flynn told WTOP. “The risk to the entire economy or national security is really at stake, so (the Biden administration) really has to find a way to stop these types of cyberattacks, because everybody here is at risk if they don’t.”

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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