The scarcity left consumers hunting for fill-ups as officials sought to tamp down panic buying. In Kill Devil Hills, N.C., a small beach town on the state’s Outer Banks, lines of cars stretched for blocks down main roadways Friday as only two of the area’s half-dozen or so filling stations had fuel. More than half of Atlanta-area service stations lacked gas Friday afternoon, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In Pickens County, S.C., the driver of a stolen vehicle was severely burned after a crash ignited canisters of gasoline stored in the back seat, the local sheriff’s office reported Thursday evening. The driver later told deputies that she had been hoarding the fuel.
The Biden administration has scrambled to cope with the fuel shortages and supply-chain vulnerabilities exposed by the Colonial Pipeline shutdown. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued waivers for the Jones Act, which requires goods transported between U.S. ports to be carried by American-flagged and -crewed ships, for two oil refiners Wednesday and late Thursday in a bid to send more gasoline to the parched Southeast. Supply issues in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Delaware, Louisiana and Texas were nearly resolved.
“Supply is returning and the end is in sight,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday. “We want to remind the public that it will take a few days to fully return to normal. We urge people in the affected regions to only buy the gas they need.”
The pipeline shutdown was caused by a ransomware attack on Colonial’s information technology systems. It’s a type of hack in which faceless attackers seize important data, shut out the intended users and demand a ransom. It’s also a common heist, one that online criminals have employed for decades.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday called the cyberattack a “wake-up call” that raises questions about whether the nation’s laws and political system are prepared for what he called “the cyber era.” President Biden touted a new Justice Department task force to go after DarkSide, the hacker group that the FBI confirmed was behind the ransomware attack.
Demand sent gas prices rising for the sixth straight day. The average national price of a gallon of regular gasoline rose to $3.05. Prices in parts of the Southeast, though, remained the lowest in the nation, AAA reported. Gasoline from Texas to Alabama traded for $2.80 or less; North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia saw prices closer to $2.90.
Consumers in Georgia and Maryland absorbed the biggest jumps, according to AAA, with prices at $3 per gallon. High fuel costs on the West Coast — gas in California sold for $4.12 a gallon — drove up the national average.
“This is a whole-of-government response to get more fuel more quickly to where it’s needed and to limit the pain being felt by American customers,” Biden said Thursday after summarizing the steps he had taken, such as enabling truck drivers to work more hours and deliver greater quantities of gas as the pipeline raced to get back in service.
It was unclear how Colonial was able to regain control of its system so that it could restart its pipeline. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that the company didn’t have a plan to pay a ransom to DarkSide to decrypt data files, but on Thursday several other news outlets reported that Colonial did pay to unlock its data.
Meanwhile, DarkSide said it was shutting down “due to the pressure from the US” in a message sent Thursday to partners in its ransomware business, according to a blog post by Intel471, a cybercrime intelligence firm.
But some security experts warned that the group may just be trying to ride out the storm. Such hacking groups frequently disperse after high-profile operations, especially after receiving a ransom, experts say, and later reemerge with a new identity.
Cybersecurity researchers believe that DarkSide operates mostly out of Russia. Biden on Thursday said the White House was “in direct communication with Moscow about the imperative for responsible countries to take decisive action against these ransomware networks” and would “pursue a measure to disrupt their ability to operate.”
The pipeline crisis was compounded by a man-made shortage driven by panic buying. Despite warnings from government officials and experts, drivers drained more than 17,000 stations throughout the Southeast, including many that would not otherwise have been affected by the pipeline hack.
The demand crunch, though, showed signs of abating. Gasoline demand Thursday fell 7 percent from the prior week, potentially a sign that drivers had stopped hoarding fuel and had been able to fill their tanks, Patrick De Haan, oil analyst for GasBuddy, wrote on Twitter.
But in some areas, motorists struggled to find fuel. In Kill Devil Hills, N.C., police monitored local thoroughfares to keep cars waiting in gas lines from blocking traffic. There were some verbal confrontations among waiting consumers and those filling up multiple containers of gas, but “nothing too serious,” a department spokesman, Capt. John Towler, said in an interview.
Drone images Towler captured show dozens of vehicles in the popular vacation town parked on the roadside waiting to get to a service station.
“The issue today and what’s going to be a bigger issue tomorrow for us is the rentals here, which are usually for a week-long period,” Towler said. “The changeover days are generally Friday or Saturday. We’re going to have all these visiting folks coming in tonight and tomorrow. If we’re still having shortages, that could cause some problems.”
Aaron Gregg, Sean Sullivan, Stephanie Hunt, Brittany Shammas and Taylor Telford contributed to this report.