In May 2021, rumors of a gas shortage throughout the United States — either ongoing or imminent — suddenly appeared, spreading both on social media and by word of mouth:
Heads up!! There was a cyber attack on the fuel system that supplies our gas… everyone should fill up if possible in case they shut everything down! Some stores around southside are already running on limited supply!
A May 9 2021 Facebook post unwittingly served as an example of how rumors can exacerbate the impression of a gas shortage:
We Insure several Gas Stations ⛽⛽ make sure you fill up tonight, there’s going to be a “Gas” shortage starting tomorrow because of the Colonial PipeLine breach!!! ????????????
As is often the case, rumors of a gas shortage led to discussions about gas prices fluctuating and speculation and anecdotes about gas stations running out of fuel.
2021 Gas Shortage in the News, and Cyberattacks
A number of social media posts reporting or warning of a gas shortage referenced a cyberattack as a precipitating factor.
A May 10 2021 Associated Press article (“Will cyberattack on US pipeline cause a gas shortage and price spikes?”) explained that Colonial Pipeline disclosed a ransomware attack on May 7 2021, and that the company subsequently suspended operations:
[A] cyberattack that forced the shutdown of a major U.S. pipeline could cause gas shortages in certain areas, reports say, and could push average gas prices well above $3 a gallon … The pipeline operator, Colonial Pipeline, said in a statement late Friday [May 7 2021] it had halted systems for 5,500 miles of pipeline following the attack.
Colonial Pipeline is one of the nation’s largest pipelines and carries refined gasoline and jet fuel from Texas up the East Coast. The statement said it amounts to about 45% of the East Coast’s fuel supplies.
It was a ransomeware attack
Colonial Pipeline said that its corporate computer networks were hit by a ransomware attack, in which the attackers hold the networks and data hostage until the victim pays a ransom. The company said it had shut the pipeline down as a precautionary act following the attack.
However, the article included a lot of speculative verbiage — the attack “could” cause shortages, “could” push gas prices above $3 a gallon, and so on. Later in the article, Associated Press added that as of May 9 2021, some suspended services had already been restored by Colonial Pipeline:
Colonial’s pipeline reportedly transports about 2.5 million barrels each day, and most of that goes into large storage tanks. That means the shutdown is unlikely to cause any immediate disruptions, according to the New York Times.
Colonial Pipeline also said Sunday night [May 9 2021] that some of its smaller lines were back online, but that its main lines are still shut down.
Readers who read the beginning of the article but didn’t finish it might have missed the part where the shutdown had been deemed “unlikely to cause any immediate disruptions” (citing the New York Times). Another AP article from May 8 2021 noted that the ransomware attack appeared to be “unlikely to affect gasoline supply and prices unless it leads to a prolonged shutdown of the pipeline.”
2021 Gas Shortage in the News, and Logistics
Readers who looked for news stories after hearing the rumor might have also come across a May 8 2021 CNN Business article that mentioned possible gas shortages, among other possible supply chain disruptions.
“So many shortages! List of major consumer goods affected by supply chain interruptions” began by mentioning gas alongside steel, metals, chlorine, and ketchup packets as examples of goods that might be in short supply:
Chicken, lumber, microchips, gas, steel, metals, chlorine and ketchup packets: What do they all have in common? They’re all (nearly) impossible to find.
“Gas,” like the other items, was the subject of a separate section. That section cited a shortage of drivers (not gas itself) as a reason for possible supply chain disruptions:
Millions of people stuck at home for more than a year are expected to hit the road for much-needed post-pandemic vacations this summer. But good luck finding gas.
It’s not that there’s a looming shortage of crude oil or gasoline. Rather, it’s the tanker truck drivers needed to deliver the gas to stations who are in short supply.
Between 20% to 25% of tank trucks in the fleet are parked heading into this summer due to a paucity of qualified drivers, according to the National Tank Truck Carriers, the industry’s trade group.
“We’ve been dealing with a driver shortage for a while, but the pandemic took that issue and metastasized it,” said Ryan Streblow, the executive vice president of the NTTC. “It certainly has grown exponentially.”
Gas prices, which typically rise at the start of the summer as seasonal regulations take effect – requiring the more expensive “summer blend” of gasoline needed to combat smog – are also rising.
The national average price of regular gas already stands at an average of $2.94 a gallon [as of May 8 2021], up more than 60% from a year ago when prices and demand were bottoming out. The national average could surpass $3 a gallon this summer, and even get higher if any hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast or if there are any other disruptions to supply, such as a refinery fire.
An April 27 2021 CNN Business article expanded upon the logistical aspect of gas delivery, reporting that unlike most cargo, truckers need specific credentials to transport gas:
Not just any truck driver is allowed to drive a tanker truck. It requires special certification, including a commercial driver’s license, and weeks of training after being hired. And while the jobs are more attractive than some long-haul trucking jobs that can keep drivers away from home for days or weeks at a time, it is strenuous, difficult work.
[Holly McCormick, vice president in charge of driver recruitment and retention at Groendyke Transport, an Oklahoma tanker company], who runs the workforce committee for NTTC, said another problem was the shutdown of many driver schools early in the pandemic. The pipeline of new drivers those schools would have produced has yet to be filled, she said. And then there’s a new federal clearinghouse that went online in January 2020 to identify truck drivers with prior drug or alcohol violations or failed drug tests, which knocked about 40,000 to 60,000 total drivers out of the national employment pool.
In normal times, driver turnover can run around 50% on an annual basis, but that spiked to a roughly 70% annual rate in April of last year , according to Brad Fulton, director of research and analytics at Stay Metrics, a trucking recruiting and retention firm. Many of the drivers who hired on at tanker carriers last spring when the pandemic first hit left the field relatively quickly, sometimes taking jobs in industries such as construction, which has been booming over the last year.
A May 8 2021 Dayton Daily News article (“Higher gas prices, possible spot shortages expected as summer travel season approaches”) also mentioned a trucking industry problem as the cause of a potential gas shortage in the summer of 2021. A local American Automobile Association (AAA) public relations manager explained:
Drivers can expect gas prices to rise this summer  along with increasing demand, but experts in the travel and trucking industries said there is no need to panic about some reports of gasoline shortages.
“We have seen a few gas stations in a small number of markets that have experienced a day or two of low to no gas at the pumps. At markets where that’s happened it is not market wide, but just a few stations at the brand,” said Cindy Antrican, manager of public and government affairs at AAA-Miami Valley.
A shortage of tanker truck drivers has created delivery issues in a few places, she said.
“There is not a shortage of gas. There is ample gas supply in the U.S.,” Antrican said. “This is more about the logistics. There is an issue with getting the gas delivered.”
Antrican explicitly stated there was an “ample gas supply” in the United States, citing “logistics” as the potential cause of intermittent gas shortages in 2021. Antrican also addressed the possible cause of word of mouth rumors — intermittent “day or two” periods with “low or no gas at the pumps” — circumstances that encouraged the appearance of gas shortages.
Under the described conditions, drivers might be motivated to preemptively fuel up all vehicles, and then encourage family and friends to do the same. Those family and friends might encounter the same temporary supply chain issues, fuel up all their vehicles, and spread the word.
2021 Gas Shortage in Search
Google Trends indicated rumors of a current or imminent gas shortage in May 2021 spanned several states.
- “Gas shortage in mississippi”;
- “Gas shortage arizona”;
- “Is there a gas shortage right now”;
- “Is there a gas shortage in NC”;
- “Is there a gas shortage today 2021”;
- “Gas shortage today 2021”;
- “Is there a shortage of gas”;
- “Gas shortage in asheville nc”;
- “Will there be a gas shortage 2021,” and;
- “Is there a gas shortage 2021?”
Rumors of a May 2021 gas shortage were extremely widespread on social media and by word of mouth, accompanied by related news with some differing perspectives. It is true that Colonial Pipeline disclosed a ransomware cyberattack on May 8 2021 — but reporting on that matter included commentary from industry experts explaining that the attack was unlikely to cause noticeable shortages. A dearth of qualified truck drivers was the subject of other reporting, in which a representative for AAA referenced very localized, temporary dry pumps in some locations. A third factor which appeared to be driving the rumors was their self-reinforcing nature — a large number of people claimed that there was either an ongoing or an imminent gas shortage, encouraging others to fuel up their cars as soon as possible. In turn, gas stations were crowded, fueling the rumors.