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Pipeline aerial patrols stepped up as fuel crisis eases

The impact of the hack, which was perpetrated by a group called Darkside, according to the FBI, was most severely felt by motorists in the U.S. Southeast with gasoline shortages causing long lines at filling stations and some reports of frenzied fuel buying.

On May 13 Colonial Pipeline, of Alpharetta, Georgia, reported “substantial progress in safely restarting our pipeline system” and noted “that product delivery has commenced in a majority of the markets we service.”

The pipeline, which had been offline since suffering the cyberattack on May 7, is a 5,500-mile system that transports fuels from Texas as far north as New Jersey for distribution.  

In earlier updates, Colonial Pipeline said it had accepted 84 million gallons of product from refineries in anticipation of resuming operation—still cautioning that service could be intermittent during the initial startup phase. Normally the pipeline transports more than 100 million gallons of fuel daily, according to Colonial.

General aviation was playing a stepped-up role in the recovery: “Consistent with our safety policies and regulatory requirements, Colonial has increased aerial patrols of our pipeline right of way and deployed more than 50 personnel” to inspect it daily on the ground, Colonial said.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued a regional emergency declaration that granted regulatory relief to “commercial motor vehicle operations while providing direct assistance supporting emergency relief efforts transporting gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and other refined petroleum products” to 19 states in the affected area, and the District of Columbia. The 100LL avgas used in piston aircraft is not shipped by the pipeline and is unaffected by the disruption.

Several commercial-service airports were working to lock down backup fuel sources, and some airlines altered some routes in response to the crisis, according to news reports.

Although most of AOPA’s seven regions reported no disruptions of supply or price volatility related to the hack, all was not business as usual in the hard-hit Southeast. In South Carolina, for example, Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport/Simpson Field ran out of jet fuel on May 10, although Terry Connorton, the airport manager, attributed the rare outage to a variety of factors, including the pipeline problem. Other unusual conditions included a surge in demand from the easing of the coronavirus pandemic, and “not enough delivery drivers.” He expected a new delivery of jet fuel later in the week.

Much depended on an individual airport’s fuel inventory at the time supplies could not be replenished, said Michael Mattern, a quality control official at Titan Aviation Fuels of New Bern, North Carolina.

Aviation fuel supplier Avfuel was watching developments closely and was prepared for any lingering disruptions, said Marci Ammerman, Avfuel vice president of marketing.

“Despite this potential for short-term outages, our Avfuel Network of Branded FBOs can expect continued supply of fuel as Avfuel’s supply and logistics team is able to capitalize on redundant supply relationships to deliver fuel from backup terminals when necessary. However, backup terminals often mean longer hauling distances, so we’re advising customers to order their fuel as far in advance as feasible,” she said in a May 12 email.

In a general discussion of aviation fuel availability, Exxon Mobil Aviation notes on its website that it has established “proprietary Business Continuity Plans (BCPs) to analyze risks for various global scenarios and develop appropriate mitigation plans for all of our locations.”

Those plans “provide customers with added assurance and confidence that our global network is prepared to manage supply disruptions,” it said. 

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