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Colonial Pipeline announced Wednesday, May 12, that they had initiated pipeline restart and that complete service restoration over their entire pipeline network would take several days. This signals the near-term end to the regional fuel distribution disruption triggered May 7, when a ransomware attack was detected and the corporation shut down their multi-fuel pipeline system. However, there will continue to be gas stations with empty storage tanks for the next several days, perhaps for the next week. And. There is no fuel shortage at the system/regional level. There is a real shortage and there is no shortage. Both are true. I explain.
While unstated, Colonial acted to prevent potential catastrophic sabotage, in the form of massive breaks in the pipeline or damage to pump systems along the pipeline. They had dealt last summer with a gasoline spill in Huntersville, NC. Colonial did exactly the right thing.
National and local media reported a cyberattack and listed all the states fed by the pipeline system. State declarations of emergency swiftly followed, as prudent precautionary steps to unlock statutory authorities that might be needed if supplies actually hit critical low levels. The news naturally cued the public to quickly top off their cars and trucks.
Normal consumer behavior is to rush out and fill up if you think there might be a shortage or big price hike. Hence the retail tanks emptied. This generates great visuals and very easy news copy. At the same time, we were getting some stories saying that there really was no great shortage. While the New York Times is a shameless leftist propaganda rag, the broken clock got it at least partially right, showing a good visual of a large fuel storage tank farm, a large cluster of huge above-ground storage tanks.
How Pipelines Work (Thumbnail Sketch)
I looked for a clear illustration but ended up falling back on one I knew from my days in Army liquid logistics. Here is a simple diagram of a fuel distribution system, starting from ocean tankers and ending in retail operations, fueling all manner of equipment. It works for purposes of explaining what is happening with Colonial.
Fuel comes from refineries. We do not need tanker ships to carry refined fuel products around most of the continental United States. So, the start point is a refinery with large storage tanks buffering the flow of product. See the six cylinders just in-shore from the fuel tanker ship for comparison. Pipelines only work with constant pressure, constant flow rate. A section of pipe is either full or empty, not partially filled with a trickle sloshing around in the bottom of the pipe. You achieve operational status by having enough at the beginning of any given section to keep the pipeline filled while flowing at a particular speed. Booster pumps along the system help keep the flow rate correct.
In addition to booster pump systems along the pipeline, you need large storage tank systems for two purposes. First, you want a buffer, an ability to keep sections operational if other sections are offline for any reason. So, big storage tank systems at each end of a section of pipeline let you maintain full pipes, capturing the volume for a certain time or feeding volume back into the pipeline if needed further down the line.
Eventually, you get to a terminal storage point, the end of the pipeline or pipeline branch. From such a terminal, or from an intermediate/ branching terminal, you can start running truck or rail tanker car operations to larger and smaller customers with larger or smaller storage tanks, until you get to retail operations, dispensing fuel from small storage tanks or even the tanker truck trailers. From your perspective, this is the big tanker truck pulling up to your local gas station or convenience store, attaching hoses to ports going into the ground, while you plug a small nozzle from the station pump into your vehicle.
To add one more detail, the same pipe carries multiple fuel types. You flow one fuel type on a timed schedule, then you mark a buffer segment, an interface or “transmix” you would not use, followed by the next fuel type for a certain time, and so on. You can do all of this manually, but it certainly helps to have the controls and sensors networked and responding to a computerized program, rather than a clock/stopwatch and timetable. You can even run internal maintenance, injecting a “pig” into the pipeline to scour the internal walls for a certain segment. Colonial runs gasoline, diesel, and commercial jet fuel through its pipeline system. Here is Colonial’s illustration of multiple fuels flowing in one pipeline:
Shortage and No Shortage
Thinking this through, you can see that shortages at the retail pump do not equal shortages at the terminal storage tank farms. There are a limited number of qualified fuel tanker truck drivers and currently certified fuel tanker trailers. Empty the retail storage and it takes a while to refill, operating within safety regulations including driver hours. By the time the retail tanks are refilled, we should be hearing that the pipelines are back to full capacity, refilling the large pipeline terminal storage tanks. That should end the run on gas at the pump. Presumably, fuel products have been stacking up at the terminal storage between refineries and the pipeline system. We have not heard that refineries had to shut down because they could not push product out any longer. That would be a sign of actual disruption at the regional or national level.Published in