Ettinger: Why The Colonial Pipeline Will Change My Primary Vote

By Eve Ettinger

May 29, 2021

There was one key detail about the pipeline situation that we missed, Eve points out.

BLACKSBURG- Earlier this month, there was a panic all up and down the East Coast as news of the Colonial Pipeline hack and subsequent shutdown rippled out. People in unaffected areas began stockpiling gas. People in affected areas filled large plastic bags with gasoline when they ran out of traditional canisters. 

My neighbor needed someone to spot her for a tank of gas. She was worried the gas station down the street would sell out before her paycheck hit her bank account and she’d be unable to pick up her kids from school. Californians laughed at us East Coasters, as we complained about paying almost $3/gallon for gas.

My friend had to cancel her son’s birthday beach road trip. There wasn’t enough gas between Pennsylvania and North Carolina for them to be assured of safely making the drive. The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency.

A Few Red Flags

The Colonial Pipeline Co. spokespersons demurred initially about the details of the hack and the ransom demands. Meanwhile, speculation mounted nationally about whether or not the company had paid the 4.4 million dollar ransom. An unconfirmed rumor went viral, saying that the hack had been the result of a phishing scam. That’s where security breaches occur due to a human error of common sense, not due system vulnerabilities. It’s often because an email designed to look official contains a link with malware in it. That takes over the computer system or network that the user is on. While this story is likely false, it demonstrates exactly the kind of vulnerabilities that are unpreventable in securing systems that rely on human operators. People are going to be people, no matter how good your systems are.

Eventually it came out that the company had indeed paid the ransom demanded by the hackers. CEO Joseph Blount spoke with the WSJ, explaining his rationale by saying “it was the right thing to do for the country.” The flow of gas was restored, prices settled down, and life has largely returned to normal after this brief panic, although distribution slowdowns are still rippling out up and down the East Coast.

But Here’s The Detail…

But here’s the detail I can’t stop thinking about with this story. The system held for ransom was not the system that controlled the flow of gas in the pipeline itself. It was not the system that allowed employees to do their day-to-day work that was held hostage. It was the system that controls the process of billing clients for the gas used. That’s right, the entire East Coast was held hostage because the company wanted to be sure they got paid for the gas, which was still flowing through the pipeline and readily available to customers. To make sure, they shut down the distribution systems themselves while negotiating access to their billing system. 

There hasn’t been any reporting done that I’ve run across yet discussing the human cost of this choice. I’m sure there were lives put at risk in some way that was directly linked to the company’s choice to stop the flow of gas to customers. Still, the CEO’s words ring in my ears. “The right thing to do for the country” was to pay $4.4 million to get access to his billing systems, but he couldn’t be bothered to ensure that distribution of his product was unhindered during the negotiations. Oh, no, it would have been too much to figure out after the fact. He had to shut down the pipeline, you see, because it was the right thing to do for his company. Screw the rest of us. 

That’s No Way To Build A Future

As we head into the Virginia primary election on June 8, I’m going to be looking into the candidates I like to make sure they’re not taking money from the lobbying PAC that Colonial Pipeline Co. is part of, and asking about their stances on the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s future. These companies have their hands around our throats and we are dependent upon their generosity to function, and that’s no way to build a future that will serve all Virginians.

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