The Mercury

Cyberattac­k hits fuel supplies in US


PETROL stations along the US East Coast are starting to run out of fuel as North America’s biggest petroleum pipeline fights to recover from a cyberattac­k that has paralysed it for days.

From Virginia to Florida and Alabama, fuel stations are reporting that they’ve sold out of petrol as supplies in the region dwindle and panic buying sets in. The White House said it was aware of shortages in the southeast and was trying to alleviate the problem.

Four days into the crisis, Colonial Pipeline Co has managed only to operate a small segment of the pipeline manually as a stopgap measure and doesn’t expect to be able to substantia­lly restore services before the weekend. The risk is that by that point drivers or airlines may already be suffering severe fuel shortages, while refineries on the Gulf Coast could be forced to idle operations because they have nowhere to put their product.

US average retail petrol prices have risen to their highest since late 2014 due to the disruption, almost touching $3 (R42) per gallon. That could add to broader inflationa­ry pressures as commodity prices from timber to copper also surge.

The Colonial pipeline is the most important conduit to distribute petrol, diesel and jet fuel in the US, moving the products from the refiners based on the Gulf Coast into urban areas from Atlanta to New York and beyond. Each day, it ships about 2.5 million barrels – more than the entire oil consumptio­n of Germany – connecting more than 20 refineries with about 200 distributi­on centres.

The vital conduit has been shut down since late on Friday. Without the Colonial pipeline, many cities and airports must seek alternativ­e supplies, either fuel imported by tanker or, if landlocked, relying on trucks.

On Monday, the Federal Bureau of Investigat­ion pointed the finger at a ransomware gang known as DarkSide. While cyberattac­ks are increasing­ly used around the world as a weapon against geopolitic­al rivals, there was no indication that the crisis could boil over internatio­nally. President Joe Biden stopped short of blaming the Kremlin for the attack, despite some evidence that the hackers or the software they used are “in Russia”.

Russia had no connection to the cyberattac­k, Kremlin spokespers­on Dmitry Peskov said yesterday..

Colonial chief executive Joe Blount and a top lieutenant assured Deputy Energy Secretary David Turk and state-level officials that the company had complete operationa­l control of the pipeline and would not restart shipments until the ransomware had been neutralise­d.

Government officials haven’t advised Colonial on whether it ought to pay the ransom, Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Technologi­es Anne Neuberger said.

In the meantime, fuel supplies are dwindling just as the nation’s energy industry was gearing up to meet stronger fuel demand from summer travel. Americans are again commuting to the office and booking flights after a year of covid-19 restrictio­ns.

Ransomware cases involve hackers seeding networks with malicious software that encrypts the data and leaves the machines locked until the victims pay the extortion fee. This would be the biggest attack of its kind on a US fuel pipeline.

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