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Madness has descended upon America after a ransomware cyberattack forced the shutdown of one of our most important pipelines, which led millions of people to rush to the pumps, leaving thousands of fuel stations completely out of gasoline. Less than a week after the closure of the Colonial Pipeline, a new wave of panic buying and hoarding resulted in skyrocketing gas prices, extensively long lines of vehicles at many stations, and even brawls between frustrated motorists. Although the company stressed that the shutdown would be temporary, people started to act as if the apocalypse had arrived. According to Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service, “this is the worst panic buying for gasoline since the Carter Administration”.
Even more concerningly, many individuals decided that just filling up their tanks wasn’t enough and began filling up any containers that they had on hand with gasoline. Some risk-takers decided it was a good idea to fill up plastic bags with gasoline, alarming the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which had to send out a tweet telling people to stop. Similarly, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged against ‘hoarding’ gas and issued an extraordinary warning to reckless drivers, emphasizing that “under no circumstances should gasoline ever be put into a plastic bag.”
Apparently, the more gas stations that ran out of supply, the worse the panic buying frenzy became. On Monday, news reports were saying that 1,000 stations were out of gas. By Tuesday, it was 2,000 stations, and today, according to the Daily Mail, more than 10,000 stations have completely run out of gas.
Motorists’ frenzy was incited by fears that the shutdown could have extended into the weekend, which would trigger other disruptions, shortages, and price hikes across the country ahead of the travel-heavy Memorial Day holiday. In Virginia, some price gougers have been caught charging $6.99 per gallon, while in Florida, several stations were selling a gallon for $4.59. The impacts of such sudden increases have started to ripple across the entire country, with the national average price of gas surpassing $3 for the first time since 2014.
All of this chaos is happening because one single pipeline got temporarily shut down over the weekend. By Wednesday evening, Colonial Pipeline announced that they had initiated the restart of all operations. However, the company warned in a note that “it will take several days for the product delivery supply chain to return to normal. Some markets served by Colonial Pipeline may experience, or continue to experience, intermittent service interruptions during the start-up period” it stated.
For its part, the federal government has been facing mounting pressure to keep the fuel crisis ‘under control’, with dozens of representatives, companies, and institutions slamming the administration for not doing more to mitigate the gasoline shortages that have gripped the southern Atlantic seaboard. In response, President Joe Biden is pushing the crisis as a reason why the $2.3 trillion fiscal package should be approved, saying that more resources are needed for education funding to train cybersecurity experts and to boost security on the country’s key infrastructures.
Patrick De Haan, the petroleum analyst for GasBuddy, pointed out that panic buying has become an even bigger issue than the pipeline outage itself, and if the trend continues, it will become very hard to quickly reverse the ongoing shortages. In Maryland, the state’s main fuel distributor warned the situation is bound to get worse in the coming days given Colonial has only managed to restore some services so far. “It’s going to be catastrophic,” John Patrick, chief operating officer of Liberty Petroleum LLC, told Bloomberg. “Governors should declare a state of emergency and ask people chasing tanker trucks to gas stations to stay home”.
All things considered, the current fuel crunch underscores how deeply vulnerable our key infrastructures are and how susceptible our supply chains have become to sudden interruptions. The emergency is making many people wonder: ‘if one single disruption can cause this much tumult what would happen when America starts to face multiple long-term national crises?’ In face of the many challenges we will have to deal with in the coming months, the cyberattack seems like a major wake-up call for all of us. Global events are spiraling out of control and our opponents appear to be better equipped and fairly more articulated than our leaders. They seem to know exactly where our weak spots are, and this crisis has once again exposed just how easy it is to push American citizens into a state of complete madness.