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An Extended Pipeline Shutdown Could Affect Gas Prices In Southeast U.S.

The shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline following a cyberattack is prompting speculation about what could happen to gasoline and diesel prices ahead of Memorial Day.
Rick Bowmer
The shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline following a cyberattack is prompting speculation about what could happen to gasoline and diesel prices ahead of Memorial Day.

The shutdown of one of the largest refined products pipelines in the United States following a ransomware attack has prompted speculation about what could happen to gas and diesel prices if the shutdown continues.

Colonial Pipeline said Sunday afternoon that it was "developing a system restart plan" and that some smaller lines were operational. "We are in the process of restoring service to other laterals and will bring our full system back online only when we believe it is safe to do so, and in full compliance with the approval of all federal regulations."

The impact of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown has so far not been felt at the pumps, with the national average holding steady at $2.96 a gallon on Sunday, according toAAA.

But given the pipeline's size and importance for the U.S. East Coast, a prolonged disruption could change things. The company has not set a public timetable for restoring full service.

"The challenges brought on by the Colonial Pipeline [shutdown] would likely not appear for several days or longer," Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, said on Twitter.

But if it lasts more than five days, De Haan said it could affect some Southeast states.

Those states would likely be among the first ones affected should the current shutdown continue as the region relies heavily on the pipeline system for its supply.

Lengthy shutdowns of the Colonial Pipeline have in the past caused gas prices to surge across the Southeastern United States. In 2016, Georgia drivers saw gas prices increase by more than 30 cents per gallon after a leak forced the pipeline to shut down for more than 10 days, according to Reuters.

De Haan also urged drivers to refrain from panic buys: "Reminder to motorists in Colonial's operating area: rushing out and filling your tank will make the problem much much more acute and likely double or triple the length of any supply event, if it comes to that."

Bloomberg reported that soaring gas prices "may stoke even more worries about inflation."

Colonial Pipeline, which carries gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from Texas to New York and moves about 45% of all fuel consumed on the East Coast, said in a statement Friday that it was the victim of a "cybersecurity attack," which it later said involved ransomware.

It's the latest high-profile ransomware incident and follows a recent attack that targeted the Washington, D.C., police.

The pipeline shutdown comes amid growing concerns over vulnerabilities in the country's infrastructure after several recent cyberattacks, including last year's attack on the software company SolarWinds that hit several U.S. government agencies, including the Pentagon, the Treasury Department, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, as reported by NPR.

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