THOMASVILLE — Lines to fill up at the gas pump spilled over into roadways this week in locations throughout the Piedmont as the shutdown of the largest U.S. fuel pipeline network continued to wreak havoc.
Fuel shortages and hoarding of fuel in areas of the southeast resulted in a price escalation that brought prices to nearly $3 per gallon on Wednesday, which marked the sixth day of the shutdown. A ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline exposed a weakness in the U.S. fuel infrastructure that trickled down to North Carolina and prompted Gov. Roy Cooper to declare a state of emergency.
Michael McCully, associate professor of economics at High Point University, believes the shutdown represents a temporary issue that could give way to preparations for greater safeguards to prevent future problems.
“I would expect this to be a one-time shock that will reverse itself,” McCully said. “I think the main long-term danger is that this shows the vulnerability of pipelines to hacking. It may inspire some copycats, but I think companies are very [aware].”
Tiffany Wright, spokesperson for AAA — The Auto Club Group in the Carolinas, said the biggest reason the state has seen some shortages is because of panic buying. She encouraged motorists to be responsible at the pump and not top off their tanks unnecessarily or fill up extra vehicles and gas cans.
McCully echoed those sentiments, saying that the shutdown was exacerbated by the response of motorists. Also perpetuating the issue was price gouging by service stations.
“It started with the shutdown,” McCully said. “One of the things that gas stations tend to do is price their gasoline based on replacement costs, anticipating gas prices going up. They proactively increased them. A second factor more recently is that people are panicking and running to the gas station.”
Attorney General Josh Stein encouraged North Carolinians to inform authorities of any reported price gouging, as a law that prohibits such an escalation went into effect with the state of emergency. In some cases, businesses and industries that are heavily impacted by the incident causing the state of emergency have a reasonable need to increase prices in order to resupply, but they should disclose these increases and allow people to make informed purchasing decisions.
Businesses cannot, however, unreasonably raise the price of goods or services to profit from a state of emergency. Unfortunately the attack on the pipeline, which delivers approximately 45% of all fuel to the East Coast, comes just weeks before Memorial Day, a traditional time for gas prices to increase in normal times.
The impact, which is multifaceted, remains unknown.
“It seems to be a little bit based on the area where the person is living,” McCully said. “Overall, they’re trying to get the pipeline back online within a week and some may be able to replace the need with other sources, especially along the coastline. I would say, potentially, up to two weeks this could be disrupting us.
“I think what we’re experiencing right now is a perfect storm.”
Staff writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 336-888-3578, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.