UA Professor urges caution, not panic, in wake of pipeline shutdown

Steven Polunksy. 

Even as a handful of Alabama gas stations run out of gas in the wake of a cyber attack on the Colonial Pipeline, University of Alabama expert Steven Polunsky says the two key responses should be prevention of future attacks and avoidance of panic buying.

“The Colonial Pipeline attack is a major concern, but not for the reasons most people think,” says Polunsky, who is director of the Alabama Transportation Policy Research Center at UA. “American freight infrastructure has some resilience – what can’t move by pipeline is being hauled by rail and trucks, and federal regulations limiting driver hours of service have already been eased in response to the incident.”

The pipeline, a major supplier of Southern states including Alabama, was shut down by a cyber ransom attack May 7, and Colonial Pipeline has been working since to bring back elements of the system as it works to resolve the overall problem.

Gas prices had already started to rebound after a decline caused by pandemic-limited travel, Polunsky notes. “Gas prices typically fluctuate, but the system can handle a certain amount give and take. What it can’t handle is panic buying, like what happened in Texas during Hurricane Harvey or even like when the shelves were picked clean of paper products nationwide in the early pandemic days. Government has used gas rationing before and may be pressed to consider doing so again if there’s another run on the market.”

While dealing with the immediate issue, pipeline companies and others in the supply chain need to be constantly assessing whether their software and safety systems are up to date and whether they have back-up plans in place in case of emergency, he says.

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“Less immediate, but still important issues that demand attention are general transportation cybersecurity as we become more dependent on technology,” Polunsky says. That means “shoring up weaknesses in supply chains with possible responses including onshoring and redundant suppliers and paths, local government plans for resiliency during the loss of critical infrastructure, and workforce development to be the best in the world at what we do.”

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