Late last week, the Colonial Pipeline, a key conduit for gas and fuel across America, was hit by a so-called ransomware cyberattack. The company has not yet revealed the system vulnerability exploited by DarkSide, the possibly Russia-linked group the FBI says was behind the hack. But it had to shut down its operation, and the delay sparked concerns about gas shortages.
Then consumers already primed to hoard by the heady early days of the coronavirus pandemic got involved.
By Tuesday, reports of shortages were hurtling across the internet. But the numbers show a less extreme version of reality. Across Virginia and North Carolina, roughly 7 percent of gas stations were out of fuel Tuesday morning, according to crowdsourced figures provided to The Daily Beast by GasBuddy, a service that tracks petroleum prices. The data shows about 5 percent of gas stations in Georgia had run dry, 3 percent in Florida, and 2 percent in South Carolina. (South Carolina had jumped to 3.5 percent later Tuesday.) At the same time, demand for gasoline in those five states had jumped more than 40 percent, according to GasBuddy’s Allison Mac.
“The pipeline being down means 100 million gallons of fuel aren’t moving per day,” Mac told The Daily Beast in an email. “There is no replacement of fuel supplies to the Southeastern states.”
In other words, the problem is a real one. But as Mac noted, “This is made worse because of hoarding.”
The pipeline’s operator hopes to bring the system back to full capacity by Friday. It will then take a few days for gasoline to reach regular supply levels once again, but those should normalize by early next week, Mac added.
Although government officials have implored drivers not to overreact to the attack and shutdown, long lines of cars could be seen waiting to fill up at gas stations throughout North Carolina. And conversations with residents of southern states pointed to spiraling chaos.
An employee at Wilmington, North Carolina, gas station HanDee Hugo’s told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that they were sold out of everything except diesel fuel and had “no idea” when the pumps would be replenished. Matt Littlejohn, who lives in the Raleigh, North Carolina area, described “lots of lines—I went to three different places in my area, two places didn’t even have gas at all.”
“Based on the lines I saw, I don’t see how they last through lunchtime without running out of gas,” Littlejohn told The Daily Beast early Tuesday. “It sure seems like it’s kinda sorta the whole toilet paper thing all over again,” he said, referring to the run on bathroom tissue that occurred in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic that saw physical fights break out among shoppers trying to stock up. “Everybody's looking for gas, but people seem calm so far. We’ll see what happens in the next 24 hours or so.”
In Florida, the shortage is almost entirely due to an anxious population, according to AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins. The Sunshine State is not as reliant on the Colonial Pipeline as some others, getting the majority of its gas from tanker ships that deliver fuel from refineries along the Gulf of Mexico, he explained. But even as those vessels continue to operate, Florida is still seeing shortages.
“That’s because people are panic buying,” Jenkins told The Daily Beast. “Sales are two to three times higher than they would normally be. People are racing out to buy whatever they can because they’re seeing news reports about a pipeline outage and are worried about gas shortages. This is the kind of activity that we’re used to seeing before a hurricane.”
In addition to artificially high demand, some of the supply issues are specific to regional vagaries, which can create a snowball effect. A large fuel terminal in Pensacola, Florida, had to shut down this week because their gasoline didn’t comply with Clean Air Act regulations, according to Franco Ripple, communications director for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Another issue affecting the market is a shortage of truck drivers, which also constrains deliveries, Ripple explained.
“It’s really a combination of factors conspiring all at once—with the hope that none of them should be long-term,” Ripple told The Daily Beast. “We’ve got the upper echelons of government working together to resolve the issue as soon as possible.”
On social media, opinion seemed split between those who are desperate to gas up their vehicles—and those who think the hordes of hoarders are overreacting.
“Dumb luck for sure, but I got the very last tank of gas at Murphy Express on Hwy 161,” tweeted South Carolina newscaster Greg Suskin. “That’s no exaggeration either. An employee stuck the ‘out of gas’ sign on my pump while I was still filling my truck. The place quickly cleared out.”
Another South Carolinian wrote, “No need to wonder why there’s a #gasshortage on the east coast. Ole buddy had eight containers lined up at the Murphy across from Tanger 17 in Myrtle Beach.”
In Alabama, resident Robert Hankins tweeted, “Fear of crisis harms the economy far more than any international crisis can. In a well-diversified economy like the United States, supply is almost never an issue until fear-based selfishness takes over on the consumer end.”
The Colonial Pipeline is only responsible for 30 percent of Mississippi’s petroleum supply, State Rep. Tom Miles pointed out in a phone interview.
“In Mississippi, it’s going to be fine because we have other options to get gas in, and hopefully that other thing will be worked out in the next few days anyway,” Miles told The Daily Beast. “Everyone’s talking about it, and I think social media is driving the panic even more. Everyone sees their neighbor buying gas so they take a five gallon bucket and rush out to buy gas. Everyone needs to take a deep breath and use some common sense, basically. We don’t need to make a mountain out of a molehill, it’s gonna be OK.”
On Monday, Colonial Pipeline CEO Joseph Blount said shortages could last throughout the week, according to Bloomberg. The company was working with the federal government to get up and running again, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the administration has launched an “all-hands-on-deck” effort to help restore operations.
In the meantime, emotions have, typically, outpaced logic.
As one Twitter user posted, “If you’re panic buying gas I really hate you right now.”