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U.S. Gas Prices Hit $3 a Gallon as Shortage Sets in Amid Colonial Pipeline Shutdown

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The closure of the largest U.S. fuel pipeline has prompted motorists to pile into gas stations, straining supplies in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and several other states, primarily in the Southeast and lower mid-Atlantic region.

Colonial Pipeline Co., operator of the 5,500-mile conduit that runs from the Gulf Coast to New Jersey, closed the line last week following a ransomware attack it disclosed late Friday. It has said it hoped to fully restore operations by later this week. U.S. officials linked the attack to a criminal gang known as DarkSide.

The run on gasoline is particularly severe in Southeastern states that have few alternative sources of the fuel, but the scramble pushed farther north Wednesday as the pipeline’s outage stretched into its fifth full day.

Energy analysts and government officials said that consumers who are panicking and hoarding gas are making the situation worse, and possibly dangerous.

“Hoarding does not make things better,” Transportation Secretary

Pete Buttigieg

said at a media briefing Wednesday. “And under no circumstances should gasoline ever be put into anything but a vehicle directly or an approved container.”

Thousands of gas stations had run dry in North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and several other Southeastern states, according to data collected by price and fuel tracker GasBuddy. Fuel prices have also been rising in other parts of the country, though the increases are most severe in areas affected by the pipeline shutdown.

A woman filled a container with gasoline at a station in Benson, N.C., on Wednesday.



Photo:

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Shortages were most pronounced in metro areas.

By midday Wednesday, GasBuddy said 43% of gas stations were out of fuel in Georgia; in North Carolina, 65% had run dry; in South Carolina, 43%, and in Virginia, 42%. The region it is tracking extends as far north as Maryland, where 11% of gas stations have run out of fuel. In Washington, D.C., about 10% of stations had no gas.

Scenes on social media and television of cars lined up waiting to fuel and motorists filling up jerrycans with gasoline evoked the 1979 Iranian oil crisis, as fear of shortages started to spread northward “like a virus,” said

Tom Kloza,

global head of energy analysis for Oil Price Information Service, or OPIS, an

IHS Markit

company.

“I’ve been unsuccessful in trying to calm the maddening crowd,” Mr. Kloza said.

Trucking companies that deliver fuel to gas stations say they have limited capacity to scale up deliveries, in part because they have had difficulty recruiting drivers in recent months.

Some customers are selling “more than double the amount of gallons per hour that they would normally sell,” said

Rob Sandlin,

chief executive of Patriot Transportation Holding Inc., owner of fuel hauler Florida Rock & Tank Lines Inc., which serves customers from Florida to Georgia and parts of Tennessee and Alabama.

Gas stations have limited amounts of on-site storage, and surging demand across the Southeast is already depleting fuel supplies at loading terminals served by the pipeline. While most supply tanks aren’t out of fuel yet, Mr. Sandlin said, “They’re obviously getting lower every day.”

The average price of a gallon of regular gallon of gasoline rose above $3 on Wednesday, AAA data show, hitting its highest level since late 2014. Prices started the year around $2.25 and have been rising as fuel demand continues to recover from last year’s pandemic lows.

Average prices for a gallon of regular were up about 6 cents in North Carolina and Virginia, and up 8 cents in Georgia, AAA data show. Gasoline futures trading in New York closed at a nearly three-year high Wednesday, up 1% at $2.161 a gallon.

Motorists waited in line for gasoline outside at a filling station in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday.



Photo:

shawn thew/EPA/Shutterstock

Debbie Eden,

who lives in southeast North Carolina outside Myrtle Beach, S.C., said all of the roughly 30 stations in her general area are out of fuel. Mrs. Eden, a 51-year-old outreach coordinator for a substance abuse treatment center, said she is now doing all her work remotely and doesn’t know if her husband, a truck driver who works out of a terminal in Camden, S.C., will be able to find gasoline for his own vehicle to come home on Wednesday.

“There is no gas,” she said. “It’s the toilet paper situation all over again,” she added, referring to the run on toilet paper early in the pandemic.

Energy prices were already rising before the pipeline shutdown with traders expecting demand to soar this summer as more people travel after receiving coronavirus vaccines.

The higher fuel costs come as prices for everything from meat to fruit also have climbed. The Labor Department on Wednesday said its consumer-price index jumped 4.2% in April from a year earlier, the biggest rise since the summer of 2008.

The panic-buying of gasoline has even spread to states not immediately affected by the pipeline outage. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in the state on Tuesday, even though the state receives very little of its gasoline from the Colonial Pipeline. The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia also have declared states of emergency in recent days.

Colonial Pipeline Shutdown

Write to Collin Eaton at collin.eaton@wsj.com, Amrith Ramkumar at amrith.ramkumar@wsj.com and Jennifer Smith at jennifer.smith@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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