This isn't a repeat of the Oil Embargo of the 1970s.
On the contrary, the United States has plenty of crude oil compounded by both a fracking boom in domestic production plus a pandemic-driven reduction in demand. The Colonial Pipeline cyber attack, however, exposed a critical vulnerability in how both crude oil and refined petroleum makes its way across the country and to a gas station near you.
"It's worked for so long and so well," said Michael Harrell, President of the NC-based Jernigan Oil Company. "It's been a really effective way to move it, and the fastest and most economical way to move the product from the refineries and terminals on the gulf coast up to the eastern seaboard."
The refineries are what turn crude oil into gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, propane and any other number of products. They are spread across the country, but some of the largest are in Houston and New Orleans. That's where the Colonial Pipeline comes in -- transporting that gasoline directly to dozens of giant tanks across the southeast. These tanks, or terminals, are then what fill up smaller fuel trucks which haul up to 8,000 gallons of fuel to a local station.
"We pull out of Selma, Apex, Fayetteville, Cheseapeake, Virginia, and Richmond, Virginia," Harrell said of his company's fleet, which serves some 350 stations in eastern North Carolina. "As much oil moved through that pipeline, there's no other way we could move that much product as fast as the pipeline does. It's virtually impossible."
Greensboro and Charlotte are also home to major terminals, as are RDU and Fort Bragg, but those are for their own exclusive use.
All of them, however, are basically running on empty because the pipeline has shut down; the main well, however, has not run dry. There is plenty of gasoline at the refineries but the challenge is how to get it to North Carolina.
"The message is it's not going to be a quick fix. The pipeline will come back and they'll get it going. But it's not going to be snap your fingers and it will go away."
In the meantime, trucks, trains and even barges are hauling gasoline. In Wilmington, however, there is only room for two barges, and Harrell says there is a six hour wait for fuel trucks to fill up. Then there's the added drive time.
There is also the added pressure of Memorial Day Weekend and the summer travel months ahead.
"Everybody needs to not panic. Don't go buy and fill everything up. That's what put us in this situation now with no inventory."