White House seeks to calm panic buying as Southeast gas stations run dry

EPA Administrator Michael Regan sympathized with people who feared the worst because of the Colonial outage, but admonished them to remain patient and not hoard gasoline.

“We understand there are shortages resulting from the Colonial Pipeline shutdown that cause stress and confusion in people’s lives,” Regan said. “Folks should follow the advice of the governors and attorneys general not to panic, not to hoard gasoline and watch for updates coming from the federal government.”

While the shortages were mostly concentrated in southeastern states, fears that major population centers further north would see a surge of buying began to emerge as well.

“We’re monitoring potential impacts from the Colonial Pipeline shutdown, but Pennsylvanians should know we are expecting minimal impact in our commonwealth,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf tweeted. “There is no need for anyone to stockpile gasoline. Widespread panic buying could result in unnecessary perceived shortages.”

The shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, which supplies nearly half the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel consumed on the East Coast, has also raised questions of whether the federal government had adequate oversight the cyber risks facing U.S. infrastructure.

Buttigieg said that President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan would include the “expectation” that projects seeking federal money would need to have “robust cyber securities resilience and planning” included in their funding requests.

“This is not an extra,” Buttigieg added. “This is not a luxury. This is not an option.This has to be core to how we secure our critical infrastructure and that includes infrastructure that is not owned and operated by the federal government.”

But Biden’s $2 trillion-plus American Jobs Plan does not mention the need to protect new and upgraded infrastructure from hackers or propose any funding for this task, although experts and former government officials told POLITICO that it was critical that the final bill include significant cybersecurity spending.

The White House said Wednesday morning that the Department of Transportation will allow overweight truck loads of gasoline and other fuels across the South and up the Atlantic Coast states as far as New Jersey to use the interstate highway system. And the Department of Homeland Security has also concluded a review of shipping capacity on the water and “stands ready to review any temporary Jones Act waiver requests” to use foreign vessels to move fuel between U.S. ports, the White House added.

Colonial could announce by the end of today whether its computer systems were sufficiently sound to begin the days-long task of restarting the 5,500-mile pipeline.

The surge in gasoline demand in some regions has drained retail outlets of their supplies, with 64 percent of gas stations in North Carolina out of fuel, while Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia are reporting figures near 45 percent, according to Patrick De Haan, a market analyst at GasBuddy.com.

Demand across the region was enough to push overall U.S. gasoline demand on Tuesday up more than 13 percent from the previous week even as most of the country experiences only a much smaller seasonal increase in sales, De Haan wrote. There seemed to be enough supply at fuel storage terminals, he added, meaning that the bigger issue seemed to be not enough truck drivers to deliver the fuel to retail stations.

Rob Underwood, president of the Energy Marketers of America trade groups, told reporters on a call Wednesday that his members were seeing surging demand.

“I’m talking to retailers who say they have sold several days of inventory in a few hours,” Underwood said. “This creates major supply shortages that really doesn’t do anything to help the process out and doesn’t benefit anyone in the long run.”

Another complicating factor is that the economic slowdown from the pandemic, which already cut into refinery production last year, has hollowed out the ranks of the truck drivers needed to deliver supplies to retail outlets, and the driving schools to train new workers had been shut.

“We’re nearing 2019 sales levels and capacity although we have, just on the petroleum side, approximately 10% fewer drivers.” , Ryan Streblow, interim president of National Tank Truck Carriers, said in call with reporters.

The Biden administration will give a House briefing on the cyberattack at 6 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.