The Biden administration on Wednesday scrambled to deliver gasoline to stations running on empty due to the Colonial Pipeline shutdown, authorizing bigger loads on federal interstates and moving to relax maritime laws so ships could deliver fuel to states gripped by panic-buying and long lines at the pump.
The White House action came as Colonial restarted the pipeline at 5 p.m. Wednesday, but the company cautioned that it will need time to catch up after shutting off the flow of fuel to the East Coast due to a ransomware attack.
“It will take several days for the product delivery supply chain to return to normal,” said the company. “Some markets served by Colonial Pipeline may experience, or continue to experience intermittent service interruptions.”
The White House assured a wary public that gasoline is on the way.
“We have been working around the clock to help Colonial return its pipeline back to normal operations quickly, safely and securely,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at the White House. “We are not taking any chances. We are doing everything that we can in the interim to make it easier to move fuel to the places that need it.”
President Biden also said he will tackle the problem.
“I think you’re going to hear some good news in the next 24 hours,” he told White House reporters.
The Department of Transportation said it will let 10 states transport overweight loads of gas and other fuels on interstate highways, citing existing disaster declarations. The permission applies to Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, though each state must issue a permit to tankers that want to use the federal roads.
The Environmental Protection Agency extended vapor-pressure waivers for states that received a reprieve on Tuesday and added several new states to the list, while the White House said it would consider case-by-case waivers of the 1920 Jones Act that governs which ships can carry goods in U.S. waters and between ports.
“The Department of Homeland Security stands ready to review any temporary Jones Act waiver requests from companies that demonstrate there is not sufficient capacity on Jones Act-qualified vessels to carry fuel to the affected region,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Consumers are buying more gas than they need in the meantime, pushing prices to a national average of $3 per gallon for the first time since 2014. Prices were climbing anyway, as demand increased heading into Memorial Day and a pandemic-related dearth of tanker truckers delayed deliveries to local stations.
“This situation is now being exacerbated by panic-buying and hoarding,” said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.
Industry representatives objected to calling the situation a shortage, saying it was a commodity delay that required patience.
“It takes time to reroute a massive quantity of product,” said Susan Grissom, chief industry analyst at American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade association.
It is taking even longer because tanker-truck drivers retired early or left the industry during the pandemic when demand for gas dried up.
“We’re definitely short on drivers, there’s no question about it,” said Ryan Streblow, interim president of National Tank Truck Carriers. “It’s a growing concern. This industry is doing leaps and bounds to recruit qualified drivers into this segment, which is a huge benefit for the American people.”
He said because of the driver shortage, federal waivers to deal with Colonial Pipeline “only go so far.”
The industry will not overstress drivers or operate unsafely, Mr. Streblow said, so “you’re going to see some delays because of that driver shortage.”
Industry officials said Jones Act waivers, in particular, would make a big difference because more ships would deliver fuel to North Carolina and South Carolina ports. They said it’s helped alleviate disruptions in the past.
“We urge the president to move forward with temporary waivers,” Ms. Grissom said.
Gas Buddy, a Boston-based technology firm that analyzes real-time fuel prices across the U.S., said 65% of North Carolina gas stations were out of fuel Wednesday.
The problem was particularly acute in major metropolitan regions, including Charlotte, Raleigh and Asheville.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued a state of emergency earlier this week to address the crisis. The governor said fear was partially to blame for shortages as people rush to buy gas they didn’t need.
“Please don’t buy gas unless you’re low and report any cases of price-gouging,” Mr. Cooper, a Democrat, said. “We will continue our efforts to help make sure there is an adequate supply of fuel.”
Although North Carolina has been the hardest hit, it’s by no means the only state impacted. In South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, over 40% of all fueling stations had run out of gasoline by midafternoon, tweeted Patrick De Haan of Gas Buddy.
He said stations in seven states, plus D.C., also ran out, ranging from 2% in Kentucky to 11% in Florida.
Colonial’s pipeline, the largest in the nation’s refinery system, was shutdown as a result of a ransomware attack, which involves malicious software holding data or computer systems hostage until victims pay for restored access.
When in operation, Colonial carries more than three billion barrels of fuel daily between the Gulf Coast to the harbor of New York and is responsible for delivering 45% of all fuel consumed on the East Coast.
Rep. Michael Burgess, Texas Republican, pressed the administration to divulge whether it thinks adversarial nations were involved beyond Darkside, a criminal syndicate whose ransomware was used to snarl pipeline operations.
He said Colonial is a critical component of U.S. infrastructure, so they can’t afford a repeat.
“If its operations are not quickly restored, energy prices will spike nationwide. Such a price increase could potentially spoil any hope of a quick economic recovery,” he wrote to Mr. Biden.
The administration, meanwhile, is using the incident to push for investments in cybersecurity as part of Mr. Biden’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package.
Mr. Biden said the nation should “make a greater investment in education as it relates to being able to train and graduate more people proficient in cybersecurity.”