HOUSTON - The federal government is trying to clear the way for fuel to be delivered to the East coast, while the nation's largest fuel pipeline remains shut down by hackers who took control of it, over the weekend.
The Colonial pipeline starts in Houston, and travels through 10 states to New York Harbor, carrying 2.5 million barrels of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, each day, representing about 45% of what that part of the country uses. Since Saturday, the pipeline isn't carrying anything, and it's a stark reminder of a growing threat
"These are criminals," says cybersecurity expert Dr. Eric Cole, "They knew exactly what they were doing." Cole is a cyber-security expert who has advised the White House and defense contractors. For years, he says he and others have warned of an attack, like the one that shut down the Colonial pipeline. "We know that critical infrastructure has been vulnerable," he says, "Many organizations are thinking that it's just not going to happen to them, and have been ignoring the problem."
The FBI has identified a Russian group of hackers, known as DarkSide, as the culprits. Investigators believe they were likely snooping around Colonial for more than a year before launching the attack that demanded a ransom of an estimated $1-2 Million dollars.
While authorities and the company work to wrestle back control, it will not be long before fuel supplies, in the Eastern states, could be pinched. Still, energy analysts expect any shortages would only be felt 'there', while supplies to other regions remain steady, for now. "Here in Houston, or Dallas, or the Midwest, the rocky mountains, they're completely unaffected," says Houston energy analyst Andy Lipow, "Geographically, it's a very limited impact."
But cyber experts say other companies need to act now or risk the same fate. "Colonial is not a one-off," warns Cole, "All of the other critical infrastructure in our country has the same exact vulnerabilities. Now, the question is how quick and how fast can we take action before we're seeing more of these cyber attacks."
Colonial has not indicated whether it has paid any ransom, though Dr. Cole expects they will regain control as quickly as possible.
Meantime, the Total refinery, in Port Arthur, says it has reduced gasoline production because it has no place to put it. It is something that may be repeated if the problem is not resolved, soon.