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Biden says that fuel is ‘beginning to flow,’ as administration struggles to limit political damage from gas shortage

A man fills up a gas container after filling up his vehicle at an Exxon gas station on Wednesday in Springfield, Va.
A man fills up a gas container after filling up his vehicle at an Exxon gas station on Wednesday in Springfield, Va. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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President Biden on Thursday urged motorists not to panic over a severe gasoline shortage in the Southeast and emphasized that a major pipeline would be restoring operations in coming days, part of an effort to quell Republican criticism on an issue long fraught with political peril for the party that controls the White House.

After his administration struggled to contain an escalating problem for several days, Biden said Colonial Pipeline was poised to operate normally in affected areas “beginning this weekend and continuing into next week.” In the meantime, drivers should not hoard fuel, he warned, and should understand that restarting is “not like flicking on a light switch.”

“I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful. But this is a temporary situation,” said Biden, speaking at the White House. “Gasoline supply is coming back online and panic buying will only slow the process.”

President Biden on May 12 said he was in close communication with Colonial Pipeline and that he lifted restrictions to increase accessibility to gas. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The president's remarks came amid a fierce political showdown over his handling of the situation, which began late last week when Colonial Pipeline discovered it had been hit with a cyberattack and shut down, disrupting the flow of gas to large swaths of the Eastern Seaboard. As anxious drivers endured long lines and dry pumps, Republicans pounced, opening a new line of attack on Biden.

In Congress, Republicans have seized on Biden’s moves to transition away from fossil fuels, suggesting it imperils the country’s energy security. On Fox News, conservative hosts have blamed the president for rising prices at the pump and long lines of cars snaking around gas stations, with one dubbing it “Biden’s gas crisis.” And in midterm battleground states where gas is running low, Republican leaders have panned Biden’s response.

White House officials — sensitive to how quickly concerns about gas can become full-blown political crises — have aggressively sought to showcase their efforts to ease the shortage, which was triggered by a cyberattack that forced a major pipeline to suspend service. They’ve enlisted Cabinet secretaries to explain the response in front of TV cameras and brief local officials; they’ve issued a flurry of written updates throughout the week; and they’ve touted their decisions to relax restrictions to boost gas delivery by ground transportation.

“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.

The gasoline challenge also comes as the administration seeks to highlight victories in the battle against the coronavirus. Biden and Vice President Harris held a news conference Thursday afternoon to showcase new federal guidance that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors in most situations.

The public relations battle underlines the strong belief by both major parties about how potent a political issue gas can become. From the BP oil spill during the Obama administration to the oil crisis that derailed the Carter administration, presidents have for decades confronted, with mixed results, catastrophes over a resource that is part of daily life for most Americans. The issue is especially resonant right now, Republicans said, with people eager to hit the road after more than a year of pandemic shutdowns.

“Just when Americans are starting to come awake again, they cannot find the gasoline to drive from where they are to where they want to go,” said former congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, a longtime Republican strategist.

“I think people recognize Biden didn’t create this problem,” Davis added, “but Trump didn’t create covid-19 either, did he?”

Economic tremors hit White House at crucial moment for Biden policy agenda

His point — that a president's political fate often rests on how he responds to emergencies that arise on his watch — has been a guiding principle for Republicans during the Biden presidency. They have been searching for ways to tag Biden as an agent of chaos — pointing to upticks in violent crime and a surge of migrants to the southern border to bolster their claims. The gas shortage marks their latest attempt.

But they have struggled to effectively rebut Biden’s efforts to cast his presidency as a calming influence over a nation that spent four years lurching from one crisis to the next under the Trump administration. Biden has received high marks from the public for his pandemic relief efforts and White House officials said they are taking a similar approach to the gas shortage — lean on experts, explain publicly what they are doing and urge people not to panic.

“Our responsibility is to help mitigate this crisis, to work with the company to help bring the pipeline back online and to communicate directly with folks around the country about what we are doing so that they understand and have confidence that this will end and resolve itself shortly,” White House deputy communications director Kate Berner said in an interview. Berner has spearheaded the White House communications strategy on the issue.

On Wednesday evening, Colonial Pipeline announced plans to restart operations after discussions with the Biden administration. But the company said it could take several days to fully resolve all problems stemming from its shutdown.

In some areas, the shortages were stark. In North Carolina, 69 percent of gas stations experienced fuel outages as of late Wednesday afternoon according to GasBuddy. Forty-six percent of stations in Georgia had outages, and more than half of Virginia stations were in the same boat, the data showed.

Colonial Pipeline, which provides the East Coast with 45 percent of its fuel, was forced to halt operations after a cyberattack that pushed it offline last week. Addressing the breach on Thursday, Biden said he did not believe the Russian government had any involvement, but added, “we do have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia.”

Biden has been briefed on the gas situation every day starting with a Saturday morning session at Camp David, according to a White House official, and his team has taken steps to try to alleviate the problems.

How the Colonial hack is affecting gas prices and supply

Yohannes Abraham, the National Security Council chief of staff, and Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, briefed Biden at Camp David, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. The White House assembled an interagency team to deal with the issue last Friday that has conducted regular calls and Zoom meetings on the topic, the official said.

But some Republicans have voiced skepticism about how prepared the administration was to deal with the situation, and pointed to mixed messages from top officials.

“At this point in time, I would just reiterate: We don’t see a supply issue,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm made a similar point. “It’s not that we have a gasoline shortage, it’s that we have this supply crunch, and that things will be back to normal soon, and that we’re asking people not to hoard,” she told reporters.

Her words did little to ease the alarm that had already ensued. By Tuesday night, images of long waits at gas stations and out-of-service pumps were plastered across television screens. Sean Hannity, a conservative host whose show draws a large audience on Fox News, declared it “Biden’s gas crisis” in a graphic on his program.

A parade of Republicans sounded similar notes this week. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted Thursday that the “gas crisis” was a signal that Biden’s policies were not working.

“We really do need the federal government to step up,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Wednesday. DeSantis had declared a state of emergency to free up more fuel to be delivered through alternative means.

“It shouldn’t take a hack/shutdown for this admin to recognize the importance of modern infrastructure like #KeystoneXL to ensure U.S. energy security,” tweeted Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) made a similar point, tweeting, “America is facing a gas shortage. We need to get the Colonial pipeline back to work, and the Keystone pipeline back to construction.”

Thune and Blackburn were referring to Biden’s decision to rescind the permit for construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. That pipeline would carry oil from Canada through Western and Midwestern states, and there’s no evidence a different policy would have changed matters following the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline.

Panic buying hits Southeastern United States as shuttered pipeline resumes operations

At the White House on Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg kicked off the daily media briefing by ticking though all of the strategies the administration had used to deal with the problem. He said officials were working “around-the-clock,” with a top priority of “getting the fuel to communities that need it.”

Administration officials have been in touch with governors of the affected states. And in an effort to communicate directly with people in those states, Granholm is making appearances on stations that broadcast there, Berner said.

In North Carolina, the state that has been hit particularly hard, Biden was also getting some support from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. He said Granholm called him promptly to discuss the situation and the federal response has been effective. Republican criticism has been unjustified, he said.

“There will always be threats and vulnerabilities,” Cooper said. “What you need is an administration that will step up and keep holding people’s feet to the fire to get things fixed. And that’s exactly the response that I have seen.”