In an effort to delay the effects of a fuel shortage and subsequent price spike on America's East Coast, the US government has issued an order to enable overtime for some truck drivers moving petrol, according to a May 9, 2021, declaration from the Department of Transportation.

This comes in response to the shutdown of one of the country's most critical fossil fuel pipelines following one of the largest cyberattacks on gas and oil infrastructure in American history. 

As of May 13, Reuters was reporting that President Joe Biden had reassured US motorists that fuel supplies should start returning to normal on the weekend of May 14, even as more filling stations ran out of petrol across the southeast nearly a week after a cyber attack on the nation’s top fuel pipeline.

Colonial Pipeline said on Thursday that it had restarted its entire pipeline system and had begun deliveries in all of its markets. It will take several days for shipments to return to normal along its 8,850km route, it said.

Some markets "may experience, or continue to experience, intermittent service interruptions," Colonial Pipeline said in a statement, echoing President Biden who said earlier there could be "hiccups".

The pipeline, which carries 100 million gallons per day of petrol, diesel and jet fuel, resumed computer-controlled pumping late on Wednesday after adding safety measures.

Shortages worsened from Virginia to Florida as depots and distribution centres awaited supply. The shutdown also forced two refineries to curb output and spurred airlines to reroute flights to refuel at airports outside the impacted area. Motorists' tempers frayed as panic buying led stations to run dry even where supplies were available.

Fossil fuel shortage could affect East Coast

On May 7, 2021, Colonial Pipeline said it suffered a critical ransomware attack – forcing it to halt all operations while it worked to secure its IT architecture from hackers. Some of the company's smaller pipelines have resumed service, but as of May 10, the pipeline's main pathways were still shut down for an unspecified timeframe.

"On May 7, the Colonial Pipeline Company learned it was the victim of a cybersecurity attack. We have since determined that this incident involves ransomware," read the statement from the fossil fuel company. "In response, we proactively took certain systems offline to contain the threat, which has temporarily halted all pipeline operations, and affected some of our IT systems."

The Department of Transportation (DOT) subsequently declared a state of emergency, following the shutdown – and waived requirements for drivers and motor carriers working to circumvent potential shortages from the pipeline shutdown.

This means they can drive for more than 11 hours, the typical daily limit – in a collective effort to delay the potential fuel shortages that can happen – since Colonial's pipeline network fuels roughly 45% of all petrol on the East Coast.

The DOT said the Colonial pipeline shutdown may create shortages of "gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and other refined petroleum products" – with overtime waivers effective in the following territories: Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Noth Carolina, New York, Mississippi, Maryland, Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Arkansas, and Alabama.

East Coast could see pump prices spike in coming weeks

"This is the largest impact on the energy system in the United States we've seen from a cyberattack, full stop," said CEO Rob Lee of Dragos, an infrastructure-focused security firm, in a report from Wired.

"You have a real ability to impact the electric system in a broad way by cutting the supply of natural gas. This is a big deal." Especially since road and rail transport are far more expensive than pipelines – and there's another caveat to extending road and rail-based supply lines for fossil fuel.

Colonial's pipeline is integral to the energy infrastructure of the US – stretching more than 8,047km and moving more than 2.5 million gallons of gasoline daily from refineries throughout the Gulf Coast to more than 50 million people on or near the East Coast, the shutdown comes while many are just starting to resume their normal transits to work.

If the pipeline doesn't go online in the next several days, analysts have said fuel prices might rise along the Eastern Seaboard – with scattered shortages.