U.S. fuel shortages worsen on Day Six of pipeline outage

(Reuters) -Fuel shortages worsened in the southeastern United States on Wednesday, as the shutdown of the largest U.S. fuel pipeline network entered its sixth day and Washington officials pledged to help alleviate supply issues.

FILE PHOTO: Holding tanks are seen at Colonial Pipeline’s Linden Junction Tank Farm in Woodbridge, New Jersey, U.S. in an undated photograph. Colonial Pipeline/Handout via REUTERS./File Photo

A ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline last week halted 2.5 million barrels per day of fuel shipments. The pipeline stretches 5,500 miles (8,850 km) from U.S. Gulf Coast oil refineries to consumers in Mid-Atlantic and Southeast states.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the Biden administration is working around the clock to help deal with fuel shortages and restore Colonial operations, including moving gasoline to places that need it.

The White House also said top officials were considering new ways to alleviate the shortages, following a raft of waivers easing quality standards for gasoline and extending working hours for fuel truckers to boost shipments.

“Our top priority right now is getting the fuel the communities that need it, and we will continue doing everything that we can to meet that goal in the coming days,” Buttigieg told reporters at the White House.

Congressional committee members have asked for a formal briefing from a White House interagency task force about the federal response to the most disruptive cyberattack on U.S. energy infrastructure.

On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Colonial’s chief executive indicated that the company would decide Wednesday whether it can make a full restart, which could take days to complete.

Privately owned Colonial Pipeline opened portions of the line manually in Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey and the Carolinas. It also accepted 2 million barrels of fuel to begin a restart that would “substantially” restore operations by week’s end, the company said.

The supply crunch has sparked panic buying in the U.S. Southeast, bringing long lines and high prices at gas stations ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend at the end of May, the traditional start of the peak summer driving season.

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The average national gasoline price rose to above $3.00 a gallon on Wednesday, the highest since October 2014, the American Automobile Association said.

Nearly 60% of gas stations in metro Atlanta were without gasoline on Wednesday, tracking firm GasBuddy said. More than 70% of stations were out in metro Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, and Pensacola, Florida. Virginia and South Carolina also saw relatively high outages.

LONG LINES

Stevenson Rosslow, 47, was filling up his Lexus with regular gas at a BP station in south Atlanta on Wednesday morning.

“This takes premium, but they’re out,” said Rosslow, the owner of the Wrecking Bar Brewpub in Atlanta’s Reynoldstown neighborhood. “Even at that, the price jumped to what, $3.39?”

The station Rosslow stopped at was the fourth he had tried. “I think we’re having a problem here because of hoarding,” he said.

Four southeastern states – Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia – joined federal regulators in relaxing driver and fuel restrictions to speed deliveries of supplies. Georgia suspended sales tax on gasoline until Saturday.

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.

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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.

REFINERS, AIRLINES REACT

It is unknown how much money the hackers are seeking, and Colonial has not commented on whether it would pay.

Gulf Coast refiners that move fuel to market on the Colonial Pipeline 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 was moving products from Lake Charles and “exploring alternate supply methods into other impacted markets.” Marathon Petroleum said it was “making adjustments.”

Colonial also serves U.S. airports including Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the world’s busiest by passenger traffic.

Several airlines have been transporting fuel by truck or fueling planes at destinations rather than at East Coast origins. American Airlines has made changes to two long-haul flights out of Charlotte, North Carolina – one of its hub airports – through Friday.

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