Colonial Pipeline restart: When will gas supplies get back to normal?

CHARLOTTE — The Colonial Pipeline is back in action after a six-day shutdown, but widespread gas station outages in the Southeast, including the Carolinas, could linger for days.

Industry executives and government officials warned it will take time to refill gasoline supplies depleted by panic-buying, a truck driver shortage and the ransomware attack on the pipeline.

Colonial Pipeline transports approximately 45% of all fuel consumed on the East Coast. The company said Saturday it was the victim of a cyberattack involving ransomware, and had temporarily halted all pipeline operations as a result.

As of Thursday night, 71% of the gas stations in North Carolina were without gasoline, according to GasBuddy, a platform that tracks fuel demand, prices and outages.

The state saw “limited overnight improvement” in the availability of gas, according to Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy.

GasBuddy also reported major outages in Washington DC (79%), South Carolina (52%), Florida (30%), Tennessee (33%) and Maryland (41%).

There is no gasoline shortage, according to government officials and energy analysts. But there has been a problem getting the fuel from refineries on the Gulf Coast to the states that need it, and officials have been scrambling to find alternate routes to deliver that fuel.

The distribution problems and panic-buying have been draining supplies at thousands of gas stations.

Major cities including Atlanta, Charlotte, Myrtle Beach and Raleigh were seeing “some” improvement in outages on Thursday, De Haan wrote on Twitter.

Operators of the Colonial Pipeline said Thursday morning that they have made “substantial progress” in restarting the pipeline system, adding that fuel has begun flowing to most of the markets it serves. By midday Thursday, they expect every market the pipeline feeds will receive fuel from the system.

A map distributed by the company indicates segments of the pipeline that run in North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland are expected to be operational by noon Thursday.

Gov. Roy Cooper and officials at North Carolina Emergency Management have been monitoring the effects of the pipeline shutdown on gas supply in the state, and said they have remained in close contact with federal officials and representatives in the petroleum industry.

“Now that Colonial has restarted pipeline operations, we will see a gradually increasing return to normal conditions that will take several days,” said Cooper. “There is available fuel supply in and around our state, and it will take time for tankers to move that supply to the stations that are experiencing shortages.”

Colonial Pipeline launched its restart Wednesday evening after a six-day shutdown caused by a malware attack. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Thursday the successful restart of the 5,500-mile pipeline “should mean things will return to normal by the end of the weekend.”

One issue is that the 5,500-mile pipeline flows at just 5 miles per hour, meaning it could take days or even weeks for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to flow through to most places and refill nearly empty storage, Platts analysts said.

“We are not out of the woods yet, but the trees are thinning out,” Richard Joswich, global head of oil analytics at S&P Global Platts, told CNN.

At the same time, a massive shortage of truck drivers is snarling the delivery of badly needed fuel to stations in the Southeast.

The run on gas had North Carolina tow-truck driver Jonathan King worried about whether he could do his job.

“I drive all over the place,” King said at a packed gas station outside Winston-Salem on Wednesday. “It gets really busy. And yeah, with the fuel going the way it’s going, it’s going to be very hard for us. Hopefully we’ll be able to get through it.”

Gas prices are still rising, too. AAA said on Thursday that the national average is now $3.02 a gallon -- up 8 cents in one week.

North Carolina is paying $2.88 a gallon on average, which is 18 cents more than a week ago. South Carolina is paying an average of $2.85.

“The restarting of the Colonial Pipeline is the beginning of the end of the crisis, not the end of the end of the supply crunch,” Michael Tran, managing director of global energy strategy for RBC Capital Markets, said. “With an operational pipeline, the race to logistically replenish regional and localized gas stations is the next step.”

“I started pumping and it was $9.99″

Charlotte resident and truck driver Clarissa Rankin posted a TikTok video Wednesday night showing a shocking price tag at the pump -- $9.99 a gallon. She needed gas for her car to be able to get to her truck.

“I started pumping and it was $9.99 and I was like what in the world! But I needed gas because I was out, so I didn’t have a choice but to get it,” she said. “If I don’t have gas to get to my truck, how are you going to have products for your house? How are you going to get tires for your car? How are you going to get toilet tissue, because I’m delivering that to you. So, when people say, ‘Why did you pay that amount for gas?’ I still got a job to do.”

The sudden increase to $9.99 a gallon raises serious concerns about price gouging. That’s when businesses are charging too much in times of a crisis. The state’s law against price gouging goes into effect when the governor declares a state of emergency.

The North Carolina attorney general’s office has received more than 600 complaints that they are looking into.

The AG’s office said the specific gas station where Rankin had an issue has gotten six complaints about it and said that they are reviewing them. Rankin told Channel 9 that she called the gas station about it and they told her to come back for a refund.

Oil industry executives urged Americans to not hoard gasoline, warning that panic-buying is exacerbating the situation. Officials said some gas stations blew through days’ worth of inventory in mere hours.

After pleas from the oil industry, the Biden administration announced late Wednesday it would approve a temporary and targeted waiver of the Jones Act, which requires ships sailing between US ports to be American flagged and domestically built. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas approved the waiver to an individual company “in the interest of national defense.”

Allowing foreign vessels to move fuel from the Gulf Coast to the Eastern Seaboard could ease supply constraints.

North Carolina officials cautioned residents to avoid purchasing gas unless they absolutely need it, and to avoid unnecessary trips until the fuel supply chain returns to normal. Cooper declared a State of Emergency Monday to temporarily waive registration, size and weight, hours of service and fuel tax requirements for trucks delivering fuel supplies.

“Most local governments have their own fuel supplies for emergency and public safety vehicles,” said Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry. “Some are tapping into contracts with emergency fuel suppliers, if their normal fuel sources run dry.”

Most local jurisdictions have enacted fuel plans focused on continuity of public safety and essential government services. Many government agencies are limiting non-essential travel until the situation stabilizes.

Carowinds is also set to open this weekend for it season passholders only, and announced that some of its rides may be closed because of the gas problems. The park didn’t say which rides would be closed but did say the popular rides will be open.

Even with the pipeline reopened, it’s unclear exactly when the shortages will be relieved.

CNN and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

(WATCH: Colonial Pipeline cyberattack: What you need to know)