Ransomware-hit Colonial Pipeline causes US petrol supply crunch, panic buying
11th May 2021

Washington: Petrol stations from the US states of Florida to Virginia began running dry and prices at the pump bowser on Tuesday (Wednesday AEST), as the shutdown of the nation’s biggest fuel pipeline by hackers extended into a fifth day and sparked panic buying by motorists.

The administration of US President Joe Biden projected that the Colonial Pipeline, source of nearly half the fuel supply on the US East Coast, would restart in a few days and urged drivers not to top up their tanks.

Drivers fill their tanks at the Speedway in East Ridge, Tennessee. Credit:AP

“We are asking people not to hoard,” US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters at the White House. “Things will be back to normal soon.”

Colonial was shut on Friday after hackers launched a ransomware attack – effectively locking up its computer systems and demanding payment to release them – and the company has said it is hoping to “substantially” restart by the end of this week.

But the outage, which has underscored the vulnerability of vital US infrastructure to cyberattacks, has already started to hurt.

About 7.5 per cent of petrol stations in Virginia and 5 per cent in North Carolina had no fuel on Tuesday as demand jumped 20 per cent, tracking firm GasBuddy said. Unleaded petrol prices, meanwhile, neared an average $US2.99 ($3.81) a gallon (3.7 litres), its highest price since November 2014, the American Automobile Association said.

In an effort to ease the strain on consumers, Georgia suspended sales tax on petrol until Saturday, and North Carolina declared an emergency. The US federal government, meanwhile, has loosened rules to make it easier for suppliers to refill storage, including lifting seasonal anti-smog requirements for petrol and allowing fuel truckers to work longer hours.

Granholm said there is not a shortage but a petrol supply “crunch” in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Southern Virginia, regions that typically rely on Colonial for fuel.

Driver Caroline Richardson said she was paying 15 US cents more per gallon than a week ago as she refuelled at a petrol station in Sumter, South Carolina. “I know some friends who decided not to go out of town this weekend to save petrol,” she said.

The strike on Colonial “is potentially the most substantial and damaging attack on US critical infrastructure ever,” Ohio Senator Rob Portman told a Senate hearing on cybersecurity threats on Tuesday.

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 and avoids targeting computers that use languages from former Soviet republics, cyber experts say.

Russia’s embassy in the United States rejected speculation that Moscow was behind the attack. President Joe Biden a day earlier said there was no evidence so far that Russia was responsible.

A statement issued in DarkSide’s name on Monday said: “Our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society.”

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

Shortages: A man fills a jerry can with fuel at a Sunoco petrol station in Sumter, South Carolina. Credit:Bloomberg

“Cyber attacks on our nation’s infrastructure are growing more sophisticated, frequent and aggressive,” Brandon Wales, acting director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said on Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the SolarWinds hack that hit companies and government agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a waiver on Tuesday that allows distributors to continue supplying winter fuel blends through May 18 in three Mid-Atlantic states to help ease supplies.

The US has also started the work needed to enable temporary waivers of Jones Act vessels in response to the cyber attack – something that would allow foreign flagged fuel carriers to move from one US port to another, the Transportation Department said.

There are growing concerns that the pipeline outage could lead to further price spikes ahead of the Memorial Day weekend at the end of this month. The weekend is the traditional start of the busy summer driving season.


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