Pipeline Shutdown May Last for Several Days

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HOUSTON — The operator of the largest petroleum pipeline between Texas and New York that was shut down on Friday after a ransomware attack would not give a timeline on Sunday on when it would reopen the pipeline.

While the shutdown has so far had little impact on supplies of gasoline, diesel or jet fuel, some energy analysts warned that a prolonged suspension could raise prices at the pump along the East Coast.

Colonial Pipeline, the pipeline operator, said on Sunday afternoon that it was developing “a system restart plan” and would restore service to some small lines between terminals and delivery points but “will bring our full system back online only when we believe it is safe to do so.”

The company acknowledged on Saturday that it had been the victim of a ransomware attack by a criminal group, meaning that the hacker may hold the company’s data hostage until it pays a ransom. Colonial Pipeline, which is privately held, would not say whether it had paid a ransom. While it said it was working to start up operations as soon as possible, by not reopening on Sunday it indicated that the operations of the pipeline could still be in jeopardy.

Energy experts predicted that traders would see the company’s announcement on Sunday as a sign that the pipeline would remain shut at least for a few days. Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service, said he thought gasoline futures would rise 2 to 3 percent beginning Sunday night and Monday.

“I don’t think in the end this will be a seminal event for pricing, but I think it will be a seminal event for cybersecurity,” Mr. Kloza said.

Nationwide, the AAA motor club reported that the average price of regular gasoline did not budge from $2.96 a gallon from Saturday to Sunday. New York State prices remained stable at $3, and in some Southeastern states like Georgia, which are considered particularly vulnerable if the pipeline does not reopen quickly, prices moved up a fraction of a penny a gallon.

Experts said several airports that depend on the pipeline for jet fuel, including Nashville, Tenn.; Baltimore-Washington; and Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., could have a hard time later in the week. Airports generally store enough jet fuel for three to five days of operations.

The shutdown comes at the beginning of the summer driving season, when fuel prices traditionally rise anyway.

Goldman Sachs issued a report on Sunday saying that since there was no physical damage to the pipeline, “the bullish impact on East Coast fuel prices is likely to be transient.”

But gasoline shortages could appear if the pipeline is still shut well into the week, some analysts said.

“Even a temporary shutdown will likely drive already rising national retail gas prices over $3 per gallon for the first time since 2014,” said Jay Hatfield, chief executive of Infrastructure Capital Management and an investor in natural gas and oil pipelines and storage.

The shutdown of the 5,500-mile pipeline that carries nearly half of the East Coast’s fuel supplies was a troubling sign that the nation’s energy infrastructure is vulnerable to cyberattacks from criminal groups or nations.

One reason that prices have not surged so far is that the East Coast generally has ample supplies of fuel in storage. And fuel consumption, while growing, remains depressed from prepandemic levels.

Still, there are some vulnerabilities in the supply system. Stockpiles in the Southeast are slightly lower than normal for this time of year. Refinery capacity in the Northeast is limited, and the Northeast Gasoline Supply Reserve, a supply held for emergency interruptions, contains only a total of one million barrels of gasoline in New York, Boston and South Portland, Maine.

That is not even enough for a single day of average regional consumption, according to a report published on Saturday by Clearview Energy Partners, a research firm based in Washington. “Much depends on the duration of the outage,” the report said.

When Hurricane Harvey crippled several refineries on the Gulf Coast in 2017, suspending Colonial Pipeline flows of petroleum products to the Northeast for nearly two weeks, spot gasoline prices at New York Harbor rose more than 25 percent and took nearly a month to ease.

Regional refineries can add to their supplies from Kinder Morgan’s Plantation Pipeline, which operates between Louisiana and Northern Virginia, but its capacity is limited and it does not reach major metropolitan areas north of Washington, D.C.

The East Coast has ample harbors to import petroleum products from Europe, Canada and South America, but that can take time. Tankers sailing from the port of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, at speeds of up to 14 knots can take as long as two weeks to make the trip to New York Harbor.

Mr. Kloza said the Biden administration could suspend the Jones Act, which requires that goods shipped between American ports be transported on American-built and -operated vessels. That would allow foreign-flagged tankers to move additional barrels of fuel from Gulf ports to Atlantic Coast harbors. The Jones Act is typically suspended during emergencies like hurricanes.

“One could make the case that the Biden administration might consider such a move sooner rather than later if Colonial software issues persist,” Mr. Kloza said.



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