‘Don’t Panic’ : State, Federal Officials Make Changes to Fix Gas Shortages

By Brian Carlton

May 11, 2021

Despite the panic, new changes will speed up delivery and lower the gas shortages.

AXTON-The problem is the panic. That message echoed across Virginia on Tuesday, as state and national officials responded to the impact of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown. As of Tuesday night, 7.7% of the Commonwealth reported gas shortages, according to the gas station monitoring site GasBuddy. Thanks to decisions made over the last three days, that number isn’t expected to climb higher than 8%, unless the panic buys keep happening. 

The line of vehicles stretched into the road at the Valero gas station Tuesday. People filled up their vehicles at the Axton store, then often pulled out one or two gas cans to load them as well. Henry County resident Brett Landers sighed as he leaned against his truck, waiting in line. 

“People panic over every little thing it seems,” Landers said. “They just get worked up and don’t think.” 

The 47-year-old wasn’t alone in that thought. Anytime someone pulled out a gas can at the pump, you heard yells, groans and horns honking from the line behind them. Dogwood asked several people if they would talk about why they were filling up multiple cans and all refused to be interviewed. 

Virginia residents encountered similar situations in Roanoke, Richmond, Virginia Beach and Norfolk, among other areas. And each time, local officials put out the same message: don’t panic. 

“Don’t panic,” Roanoke Emergency Management said in a statement on Instagram. “In light of what is going on with the Colonial Pipeline Ransomeware Attack, the City of Roanoke wants to remind you that if you do not need gasoline, please don’t rush out to fill your tank. Please allow our gasoline distributors time to restock and refuel our gas stations. Overwhelming our local gas stations will only prolong the wait.” 

What Caused The Gas Shortages? 

So what caused the gas shortages? You can thank a ransomware attack. Basically, a group of hackers targeted the Colonial Pipeline, which supplies 45% of the East Coast’s gasoline. As a precaution after getting the threat, Colonial officials shut down their operation over the weekend. That brought deliveries to a stop. 

The hackers,known as DarkSide, put out somewhat of an apology Tuesday, saying “our goal is to make money and not [to create] problems for society.” 

The shutdown closed all four of the company’s main lines, which remain closed today. However, as of Sunday night, some of the smaller “lateral” lines that Colonial operates started coming back online. Those run between Colonial facilities along the pipeline and local terminals, providing access to what fuel had been already in the lines when the system shut down. 

Overall, Colonial officials say there are 65 lateral lines. They hope to bring all of them online in the next few days and then get the main lines operational by the end of the week. That means normal shipments should resume early next week. 

Now one of the issues has been how to deliver the product. With lateral lines opening, the supply is becoming available again. However, with the connecting pipelines still down, that creates a problem. How do you get the product to all cities and counties? That’s where state and federal officials come in. 

Steps Being Taken in Virginia

The Biden Administration launched several plans over the last three days. First, on Sunday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency declaration. Pipelines distribute more of the product than tanker trucks because of federal restrictions put in place. Drivers can only travel in the tanker 14 hours a day. Also, they can’t drive without evidence they’ve taken 10 consecutive hours off duty. On Sunday, Transportation officials temporarily suspended those rules. 

At the same time, Colonial started coordinating with shipping companies to get the product out of their facilities. In their statement Monday, Colonial officials said they are “working with our shippers to move this product to terminals for local delivery.” They added that decision “should help alleviate local supply disruptions.” 

In other words, tanker trucks started going out from multiple Colonial facilities on Sunday, to provide additional supply. Colonial officials estimated Tuesday that 41 million gallons were en route to various locations. Henry and Pittsylvania counties saw some of these vehicles arrive on Tuesday. 

Transportation officials are also looking at rail options, to see if trains can help speed up fuel distribution across the states. The main question is if the trains can transport fuel from coastal ports and terminals to rural and mountainous areas in each case. 

The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, waived rules requiring “cleaner” fuel for one week in order to boost supply. That reduces the amount of refinement required. 

Finally, In addition to federal rules, there are state fees and regulations a company has to pay in order to ship material by tanker truck. On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam suspended those rules, declaring a state of emergency. That made it easier for companies to deliver gasoline.  

Next Steps For Virginia

Tanker trucks are currently delivering shipments. Next week when the main pipelines reopen, trains could be used to speed up delivery to rural areas. And plus, as the American Automobile Association pointed out, the U.S. has a hefty stockpile of oil.  

“There is sufficient gasoline supply in the U.S.,” AAA officials said in a statement Tuesday. They directed Dogwood to the fact that the country currently has 235.8 million barrels of oil. Yes, in some areas, supply will remain low while waiting for the pipeline to restart, they acknowledge. And in the areas where supply remains, AAA spokesperson Jeanette McGee said to expect a 3 to 7 cent price hike this week. But as long as people don’t start panic buying, officials say there will be enough to meet needs.  

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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