Gas stations from Florida to Virginia began running dry on Tuesday, as hackers shut down the biggest U.S. fuel pipeline for the fifth day, sparking panic buying by motorists.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden projected that the Colonial Pipeline, source of nearly half the fuel supply on the U.S. East Coast, would restart in a few days and urged drivers not to top up their tanks.
“We are asking people not to hoard,” U.S. 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.
The company said it is making progress and hopes to restart a substantial portion of operations by week’s end.
It said it has taken delivery of an additional 2 million barrels from refineries for deployment upon restart.
“Markets experiencing supply constraints and/or not serviced by other fuel delivery systems are being prioritised,” Colonial said in a statement.
The outage, which has underscored the vulnerability of vital U.S. infrastructure to cyberattacks, has already started to hurt.
In metro Atlanta, 30% of gas stations are without gasoline, tracking firm GasBuddy said.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, 31% of gas stations had no fuel on Tuesday.
Unleaded gas prices, meanwhile, hit an average $2.99 a gallon, its highest price since November 2014, the American Automobile Association said.
Colonial said it made recent deliveries to parts of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland and New Jersey.
In an effort to ease the strain on consumers, Georgia suspended sales tax on gas until Saturday, and North Carolina declared an emergency.
The federal government, meanwhile, has loosened rules to make it easier for suppliers to refill storage, including lifting seasonal anti-smog requirements for gasoline and allowing fuel truckers to work longer hours.
Granholm said there is not a shortage but a gasoline 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 cents more per gallon than a week ago as she refuelled at a gas station in Sumter, South Carolina.
“I know some friends who decided not to go out of town this weekend to save gas,” she said.
The strike on Colonial “is potentially the most substantial and damaging attack on U.S. critical infrastructure ever,” Ohio Senator Rob Portman told a Senate hearing on cybersecurity threats on Tuesday.