Colonial Pipeline crawls towards operational normalcy, outage causes panic buying

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Colonial Pipeline, the top US fuel pipeline disabled by a cyberattack for six days, sent workers to manually release some stored supplies on Wednesday as fuel shortages across the Southeast worsened and motorists fumed, Reuters reported.

Gas stations from Florida to Virginia began running dry and prices at the pump rose on Tuesday, as the shutdown of the biggest US fuel pipeline by hackers sparked panic buying by motorists.

The administration of President Joe Biden projected that the Colonial Pipeline, source of nearly half the fuel supply on the US East Coast, would restart in a few days and urged drivers not to top up their tanks.

“We are asking people not to hoard,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters at the White House. “Things will be back to normal soon.”

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 US energy infrastructure. The pipeline stretches 5,500 miles (8,850 km) from US Gulf Coast oil refineries to consumers in Mid-Atlantic and Southeast states.

Privately owned Colonial Pipeline operator 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 operation 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.

Nearly a third of gas stations in metro Atlanta and in Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina, were without fuel, tracking firm GasBuddy said. The average price for regular gasoline rose to $2.99 a gallon, the highest since 2014.

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, the Reuters report said.

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.

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 is moving products from its Lake Charles refinery and “exploring alternate supply methods into other impacted markets.” Marathon Petroleum, another large refiner, said it is “making adjustments” to its operations due to the pipeline shutdown.

Colonial was shut on Friday after hackers launched a ransomware attack—effectively locking up its computer systems and demanding payment to release them.

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