What would happen if cyberattackers hit American oil pipeline systems again?

Posted November 23, 2021 6:25 p.m. EST

— Early in the year, Colonial Pipeline was hit by cyberattacks that led to a gas shortage mostly caused by panic-buying at the pump.

Officials with the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management reviewed what happened and released a report, hoping that the U.S. could learn from any mistakes and be prepared if cyber attackers were to hit again.

The report says the shortage could have been worse if not for many people teleworking because of the pandemic.

"The system is just not designed for everybody in the state to fuel in a 24- to 48-hour period. It’s the easiest way to drain the system dry," according to Gary Harris, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum & Convenience Marketers.

Now that more people are headed back to work, a future cyberattack could lead to a 4- to 6-week recovery period, according to the after-action report.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates $350 million in ransom money was paid out to cyber criminals. Colonial Pipeline reported it alone paid nearly $5 million to regain control of its systems.

The report also recommends that North Carolina strengthen relationships with neighboring states to possibly limit fuel in emergency situations.

“That gets to be a problem because if you got some guy that’s a jerk, and insists he wants to buy gas because it’s his God-given right to buy gas, then you've got to deal with an angry public," Harris said.

Harris recommends that governments should regulate buying habits to stretch the state's fuel supply for multiple days, instead of giving all the gas out in one day.

Whether its a cyberattack, a gas leak or a big storm, Harris says drivers during a crisis should maintain their regular buying habits to help stretch the supply.

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