Panic-buying by motorists in response to a cyber attack on an interstate fuel pipeline has led to stock-outs at petrol stations scattered around the US south-east, prompting the federal government to suspend pollution rules to maintain the flow of energy.
The Colonial pipeline has been shut since Friday after what the FBI said was a ransom attack by a hacking group called DarkSide. The 5,500-mile network delivers petrol, diesel and jet fuel from refineries on the Gulf of Mexico to markets on the US east coast.
Drivers worried about potential shortages have been filling up their cars. Almost 8 per cent of stations in Virginia had run out of petrol as of Tuesday morning, according to fuel data provider GasBuddy, while about 6 per cent of stations in North Carolina and 4 per cent of stations in Georgia had also run dry.
“Motorists in some cases are starting to hoard gasoline supply, leading to stations running low or out faster than they would have, making a larger impact for the days ahead,” said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.
The pipeline company has said it expects most of the system to be in operation by the end of the week. US gasoline futures for June delivery have largely held steady since the shutdown began as traders bank on supplies being back to normal.
However, prices at the pump have begun to rise sharply. Average national gas prices reached $2.99 on Tuesday morning, according to the AAA, a motorist association, the highest level since November 2014.
States in the US south-east remained among the cheapest markets for petrol, according to AAA, but prices are also rising there.
As of April 30, the US south-east had 23.8m barrels of petrol in storage, 9 per cent less than average, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Fuel wholesalers can draw down those stocks until service on the pipeline, which carries 45 per cent of the fuel consumed on the east coast, is restored.
However, there has been “in many cases two or three times normal demand” as consumers react to the disruption, said Jeff Lenard, vice-president for strategic industry initiatives at NACS, a convenience store trade association. “People are concerned about where their next fill will come from so they’re making sure they get it today.”
To address fuel shortages, the US environmental regulator on Tuesday temporarily waived certain restrictions on the vapour pressure of petrol sold in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, plus Washington, DC. The controls are normally in place to curb smog.
“I have determined that an ‘extreme and unusual fuel supply circumstance’ exists that will prevent the distribution of an adequate supply of compliant gasoline to consumers,” Michael Regan, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in a letter to the three state governors and Washington’s mayor.
The US Department of Transportation earlier enacted emergency powers to lift limits on the amount of hours truckers could work, in order to increase deliveries of fuel by road.