North America’s biggest petroleum pipeline may take several more days to recover from a cyberattack that forced it to halt shipments of gasoline and other fuels, raising the specter for shortages if local reserves run out.
Colonial Pipeline said segments of its Texas-to-New Jersey line are being brought back online in steps, easing some of the most immediate concerns that pumps in major population centers up and down the U.S. East Coast could run dry. The question now is whether regional inventories held in storage tanks are enough to satisfy demand while Colonial works on resuming operations.
The conduit has been shut down since late Friday, prompting frenzied moves by traders and retailers to secure alternative supplies. On Monday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation pointed the finger at a ransomware gang known as DarkSide. The pipeline hasn’t suffered any physical damage and no fuel shortages have been detected, a White House official said.
Emergency shipments of gasoline and diesel from Texas already are on the way to Atlanta and other southeast cities via trucks, and at least one Gulf Coast refinery began trimming output amid expectations that supplies will begin backing up in the nation’s oil-refining nexus. Airlines flying out of Philadelphia International Airport are burning through jet-fuel reserves and will need to locate new supplies “soon,” a spokeswoman said.
Government officials haven’t advised Colonial on whether it ought to pay the ransom, Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Technologies Anne Neuberger said during a briefing.
The national average retail gasoline price rose to $2.967 a gallon on Monday, a 2.4% increase from Friday, according to AAA. The premium for wholesale gasoline in the New York area expanded to its widest in three months.
The attack came just as the nation’s energy industry was preparing to meet stronger fuel demand from summer travel. Americans are once again commuting to the office and booking flights after a year in lockdown. Depending on the duration of the disruption, retail prices could spike, further stoking fears of inflation as commodity prices rally worldwide.
DarkSide said in a post on the dark web that it wasn’t to blame and hinted that an affiliate group may have been behind the attack. The group promised to do a better job of screening customers that buy its malware.
Gasoline futures that initially surged as much as 4.2% in overnight trading surrendered most of those gains on Monday.
Convenience-store chains in places like Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia, began clamoring for emergency fuel deliveries on Friday afternoon, said Steve Boyd, senior managing director at Houston-based distributor Sun Coast Resources Inc.
Landlocked cities face the greates danger of fuel shortages compared with those with access to water-borne deliveries, Boyd said. If the pipeline remains down for many more days, he’s anticipating a “massive surge” in orders. Sun Coast, which operates about 900 trucks, has delivered emergency supplies during 75 major storms over the past 15 years, including during hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017.
Although the attack on the Colonial system is “unprecedented,” the conduit ought to be back in service in three to five days, Amrita Sen, co-founder of consultant Energy Aspects Ltd., told Bloomberg TV just hours before the pipeline company announced it’s end-of-week target.
Gasoline for June delivery rose 0.3% to $2.133 a gallon at 1:52 p.m. in New York. Futures prices have gained more than 50% this year, helped by the recovery from the worst effects of the pandemic.
Prior to Colonial’s Monday statement, traders were seeking vessels to deliver fuel to coastal terminals. Four vessels were provisionally chartered to send diesel or gasoline from Europe to the U.S. Atlantic Coast, according to Danish oil-product tanker company Torm A/S.
Some tankers are also being secured to temporarily store gasoline along the Gulf Coast, according to market participants who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. Meanwhile, Total SE scaled back activity in a key unit at its Port Arthur, Texas, refinery because of the Colonial shutown, according to a person familiar with operations.
Colonial halted all operations on its system late Friday after suffering a ransomware attack that affected some of its IT systems.
The event is just the latest example of critical infrastructure being targeted by ransomware. Hackers are increasingly attempting to infiltrate essential services such as electric grids and hospitals. The escalating threats prompted the White House to respond last month with a plan to increase security at utilities and their suppliers. Pipelines are a specific concern because of the central role they play in the U.S. economy.
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort right now,” said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. “We are working closely with the company, state and local officials to make sure that they get back up to normal operations as quickly as possible and there aren’t disruptions in supply.”
The White House pulled together an inter-agency task force to address the breach, including exploring options for lessening its impact, according to an official. President Joe Biden can invoke an array of emergency powers to ensure supplies keep flowing to big cities and airports along the East Coast.
Some rules curbing domestic transportation of fuel have been eased to help deal with any shortages. That doesn’t extend to waiving Jones Act, a measure that would allow foreign tankers to help shuffle more petroleum products between U.S. ports.
“There are ways to get around this,” said Jeff Currie, global head of commodities at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. “Importantly, the Department of Transportation has lifted any restrictions around trucking and boat transportation, which means you can use other avenues of transportation to deal with this.”
Colonial has the capacity to send about 2.5 million barrels (105 million gallons) a day from Houston as far as North Carolina, and another 900,000 barrels a day to New York.
Ransomware cases involve hackers seeding networks with malicious software that encrypts the data and leaves the machines locked until the victims pay the extortion fee. This would be the biggest attack of its kind on a U.S. fuel pipeline.
With gasoline inventories ample, pump prices weren’t expected to tick much higher until Memorial Day at the end of May, which is traditionally viewed as the start of the U.S. summer driving season. If the pipeline doesn’t restart soon it will accelerate the move higher.
“Atlanta will be one of the earlier sore spots, along with eastern Tennessee, and perhaps the Carolinas,” said Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.
The Northeast can secure gasoline shipments from Europe but it will come at an increasing cost the longer the pipeline stays shut. The fuel’s premium to crude in northwest Europe had jumped by more than 5% in intra-day trading earlier on Monday but was still down week-on-week.
In the meantime, fuel producers including Marathon Petroleum Corp. are weighing alternatives for how to ship their products to the Northeast.
One potential route is the Kinder Morgan-operated Plantation Pipeline, even though it only extends as far north Washington D.C. and has a capacity of 720,000 barrels a day, far short of Colonial’s. Kinder said Sunday it’s working with customers to accommodate additional barrels during Colonial’s outage, and that Plantation is deferring where possible any non-essential maintenance that might otherwise reduce flow rates.
While all of the major segments of Colonial’s system remain offline, some smaller so-called laterals connecting specific fuel terminals to delivery points are in service, the company said earlier.
Inventories offer minimal cover, ClearView Energy Partners said in a research note. Tankers leaving Rotterdam could take up to 14 days to make the trip to the New York Harbor. The Midwest could theoretically send some of its supplies to the East Coast via rail and barge, but the region’s inventories are tighter than in previous years, ClearView said.
“The Colonial outage comes at a critical juncture for the recovering U.S. economy: the start of the summer driving season,” ClearView said. “We therefore think lawmakers could begin a ‘blame game’ immediately, and a sustained disruption that leads to a significant pump price spike could increase prospects of domestic policy interventions.”
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