This May, a cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline struck the East Coast and left many consumers in a frenzy while fleets faced their own challenges. The disruption of the pipeline, which carries fuel between New Jersey and Texas, prompted a five-day shutdown and temporary fuel shortage.
According to Cox Automotive, 58% of consumers in the Southeast witnessed local gas stations running out of fuel and 63% observed unusually long lines at the local station, while 92% saw higher prices at the pump. Fleet operations in the same region made last-minute or partial fuel orders amid quickly dwindling supply, and managers had to figure out how to conserve what they had while making sure public operations stayed on schedule.
While pipeline operations have since returned to normal, the question remains: How can fleet managers plan and prepare for future disruptions?
In Wake County, North Carolina, Thomas Kuryla, director of fleet operations, heard the pipeline news from the county’s bulk fuel management company that is contracted to ensure priority delivery and never fall below 65% capacity during a fuel shortage.
“My main concern was the public’s reaction once the news went public,” he said. “I knew this would have an effect on our county drivers’ ability to get fuel at commercial sites.”
Marguerite Guarino, deputy director of Fairfax County Department of Vehicle Services in Virginia, learned of the hack through the news, which was confirmed by drivers and contractors when placing morning orders for delivery.
“Our top concerns were ensuring that public safety, schools, and transit had sufficient fuel to perform their daily functions, which are important to the safety and livelihood of the community,” she said.
Scott McIver, CAFS, CPFP, fleet manager for the City of Greenville, South Carolina, immediately recommended that all non-essential travel for city operations be canceled — a request senior leadership approved.
“Our top concern was to ensure that all essential functions remained on schedule,” he said. “Solid waste pickup still had to be done.”
For the City of Albany in Georgia, its local vendor owns and operates several fuel stations and truck stops. Initially, the fleet team’s biggest concern was the vendor’s ability to balance his own personal interests against its contractual commitments with the city.
“The second concern involved the way in which the vendor would receive his shipments and if it would have a negative impact on our daily operations,” Samuel Lee Sneed Jr., fleet management coordinator, explained. “Prior to the fuel crisis, more fuel was already being consumed due to the pandemic, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention regulations, and our city’s requirement of only one person per vehicle. The restriction of one person per vehicle resulted in additional consumption by Public Works and Utilities. More vehicles were being deployed and commercial rental vehicles were also acquired to accommodate the separation of work crews.”
Topping off bulk fuel tanks and placing new orders was top priority for most fleet managers when word got out about the hack.
At the City of Raleigh in North Carolina, Justin Mullins, assistant fleet manager, found out through the media and called around to vendors that do small or partial loads.
“If our tanks are full, we can last a few weeks,” he said. “We were on a waiting list, and some loads came late while others never came. It did disrupt our normal cycle, but we never ran out.”
The first order of business in Fairfax County was to refresh product levels and update the usage log to create a detailed schedule for future fuel deliveries. The county’s fuel truck driver amended his schedule to receive allocations at midnight when the fuel yards opened in an attempt to be at the head of the line. When fuel ran out, the team worked with its supplier to receive fuel coming in from other ports and pipelines.
The City of Greenville quickly enacted its emergency fuel conservation program, which McIver said has evolved through the last several shortages. It starts with making sure fuel vendors can deliver on frontline positioning, then using fuel cards to fill vehicles locally, and planning trips in advance to reduce the overall consumption of fuel. A few years ago, the city adopted a no-idle policy and has GPS monitoring on vehicles, which sets off an alert when a unit idles more than 10 minutes.
“Our preparedness has really morphed into an ongoing everyday mindful culture of being more efficient in our daily operations so when an emergency hits, it is not a major disruption for our operation,” McIver said. “By practicing fuel conservation on a daily basis, it is easier to roll with the punches.”
Good communication processes and systems can make all the difference in getting the word out to everyone affected in a crisis.
Kuryla admitted his team could have improved the timeliness of communication. Drivers raced to commercial fuel sites, “which is not what we want them to do,” he explained.
“Our direction is to only obtain enough fuel for a 48-hour period. Everyone topping off their tanks only increases the shortage, and we do not want to be a part of the problem.”
Over in Fairfax County, Guarino learned the county’s fleet processes were effective in assessing available fuel. Fleet management also had a dedicated fuel truck driver on staff to supplement contracted deliveries. However, the request for fuel from two nearby municipalities revealed an oversight in established billing processes, and fleet management now has procedures in place should others need help in the future.
Flexibility is also key to adapting to any crisis. “There were a couple instances during this pipeline shutdown where we had to accept premium instead of regular unleaded,” Sneed reflected. “And there were a few days when there was no diesel available in the city. One contingency was to fuel city assets at the vendor’s truck stop. Luckily, we did not have to do that as the vendor was finally able to secure a diesel delivery.” The fleet team said members’ constant vigilance, frequent communication, and solid relationships are what paid off the most.
Peter Bednar, fleet management director at the City of Albany, wants to explore a contingency plan that would entail more cooperation from local gas stations. The plan is to execute a Memorandum of Understanding with a local gas station to give priority fueling during fuel crises or any catastrophic events to the city’s public safety, utilities, and transportation departments. While the city currently uses WEX cards for out-of-town fueling, Bednar plans to find out if he can increase storage capacity by adding another fuel site. “I am hopeful that some of the infrastructure grants being discussed could fund this project,” he said.
While this event was the first major disruption experienced by some fleet managers, others had seen such events before.
Kuryla has been through prior fuel shortage events, which is why Wake County contracted with its vendor to add the clause addressing priority and minimum fuel levels. Thanks to this, he felt prepared and had no issues keeping adequate inventory for the fleet.
Having been through several major storms and hurricanes, Bednar knew that during unfortunate weather events, fuel trucks have been unable to travel through the city due to downed power lines, trees, and debris. Because of this, he learned to rely on the city’s own resources.
“We actively monitor weather status and top off all our tanks when we see a hurricane or major storm coming our way,” he said. “When we lose power, we have many cooperative measures with linemen from other areas coming to help with restoration. In return, we provide all the fuel, so it is critical to have underground tanks filled.”
In Raleigh, Mullins said hurricanes are the closest events he’s experienced, although those usually show themselves through power outages and the chance to get fuel shipments through the emergency communications center. This event brought fewer options for finding fuel.
If you’re looking at implementing an emergency response plan, Mullins advised the ability to run a number of different types of fuels and vehicles if the grid goes down. He also recommended having oversized tanks so even at half capacity, you’ve got a buffer. “Don’t depend too heavily on one type of fuel or one type of vehicle,” he warned. “A little bit of diversity doesn’t hurt.”
“We’ll probably see more of this type of thing happen, and it will be more important to have strategies in place to react to emergencies,” Mullins added. “A lot of burden falls on municipalities and local government when something like this happens — especially the initial reactions that have to be local before federal support is available.”
McIver’s advice is to look at preparedness as a change in your daily culture. “Examine the ways you can conserve during times of plenty, and it will make it easier to absorb the unexpected,” he added.
An Argument for EVs?
The fuel shortage from this disruption begs another question: Are electric vehicles (EVs) an answer to future pipeline hacks? While interest in EVs is steadily growing, it’s important to remember EV charging networks can also be vulnerable and pose their own opportunities for disruption.
Thomas Kuryla, director of fleet operations for Wake County, North Carolina, said this was not a justification for electric vehicles, as shortages could also come in the form of an electrical power outage event.
“The bigger picture with EVs, aside from the fact that I believe they are the future, is we have to seriously take into consideration the charging infrastructure and realize that we are only moving our dependency from one source to another,” Scott McIver, fleet manager for the City of Greenville, South Carolina, added. “Moving to EVs gives us a chance to get it right the first time by structuring our charging infrastructure in such a way that we are using the local grid, but should that grid fail, we can charge our fleet off our own renewable system such as wind and solar.”