Motorists frantically stocking up on gasoline caused more gas stations on the US east coast to close Wednesday, as the government rushed to free up supplies days after the country’s main fuel pipeline was shut down by a cyber attack.
A dozen states ranging from Florida to Virginia declared a state of emergency, heightening the sense of panic among consumers who flocked to gas stations bearing fuel cans and even plastic trash bags to fill up.
A ransomware attack Friday on Colonial Pipeline forced the company to shut down its entire network, and it is not expected to be back online until the end of the week.
The company operates the largest US fuel conduit system in the United States, which sends gasoline and jet fuel from the Gulf Coast of Texas to the populous east coast through 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) of ducts that serve 50 million consumers.
The company said it is manually delivering fuel through some lateral lines, prioritizing delivery to areas least able to find alternative supplies.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday urged Americans to remain calm.
“We recognize the concern that is out there, and that’s why we haven’t wasted any time to get into action,” he told reporters at the White House. “Hoarding does not make things better.”
The Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have eased regulations on transporting fuel and temporarily waived clean air rules throughout the affected states to try to ease the supply crunch.
But panic buying was causing thousands of stations to run dry, according to gas price tracking site GasBuddy — which itself was crashing under the volume of new users.
“It’s crazy, but we got to deal with it,” a customer who gave her name as Vanita told AFP as she filled up her car in Raleigh, North Carolina on Tuesday.
– Don’t use trash bags –
Those few stations with fuel available on Wednesday saw long lines of cars waiting to fill up.
In Florida, 73 percent of stations in the Pensacola area were out of fuel, according to GasBuddy analyst Patrick De Haan.
In North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham area, seven out of 10 stations ran out of gas, as did six in 10 around Georgia’s capital, Atlanta.
About 45 percent of stations in Virginia were empty and gasoline was also starting to become scarce in Washington DC, where 8 percent of stations had run out, according GasBuddy data.
“The public perception is: if it’s so bad a situation that our governors have to declare a state of emergency, it must be really bad and I need to go fill up,” said Andy Lipow, of consulting firm of Lipow Oil Associates.
“As a result we’ve seen demand at the service stations two and three times the normal which exacerbates the situation,” he said.
US average gasoline prices rose to close to $3 a gallon for the first time since November 2014, according to the American Automobile Association.
And as shortages become more widespread, “Unfortunately it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Lipow said.
Supplies are running low and Colonial Pipeline’s competitor Plantation Pipeline has about one-third of the capacity.
Amid the panic, pictures emerged on social media of motorists filling buckets and even trash bags with gasoline and loading them into their cars.
Buttigieg joined the US Consumer Product Safety Commission in urging drivers to use caution.
“Now is the time to be safe and sensible,” Buttigieg said, adding that “under no circumstances should gasoline ever be put into anything but a vehicle directly or an approved container.”
CSPC on Twitter warn of potential “deadly consequences.”
“Do not fill plastic bags with gasoline. We know this sounds simple, but when people get desperate they stop thinking clearly,” the agency said.