The Colonial Pipeline is up and running again, but the madness isn't over...
From May 7th through the evening of May 12th, America's largest supply network for gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and jet fuel was shut down.
As of Thursday morning it is back online, though it will take a while for the typical rate of delivery to resume.
Under normal circumstances, the Colonial gas pipeline network is responsible for moving more than 100 million gallons of fuel every day, transporting it from refineries in Texas all the way up to New York, with offshoots all along the eastern seaboard. That's around 45% of the fuel supply for the east coast.
But last week that network was shut down thanks to a ransomware attack from a group known as DarkSide. And, as a result, gas prices have been spiking, with the national average topping $3 a gallon for the first time in years.
Colonial Pipeline restarts operations, gas prices spike | WNT www.youtube.com
Predictably, a sense of panic has gripped the populace, particularly in some Southern states, where long lines have been forming for the pumps. More than a thousand gas stations were fully tapped, and many others started placing limits on how much their customers could buy.
If the hackers' purpose was to cause as much chaos as possible, this would all be a rousing success. But was that really their motivation, or are they after something else entirely?
Who Is DarkSide?
The more you look into them, the less they sound like a criminal gang. Rather, the data thieves at DarkSide give off the vibes of a tech startup, with promotional materials that talk about clients, affiliates, tech support, financial evaluations, and their sterling (criminal) reputation.
The organization is based somewhere in Eastern Europe, with roots in a Russian-language hacker forum, but early rumors that they have ties to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin seem to be baseless. They claim to be independent of political ties, and that certainly matches their tactics.
According to their public statements, they always assess their target companies carefully — making sure they'll be able to afford a steep ransom payment — before striking. They also claim to have a principled stance against targeting companies in the fields of medicine, funeral services, or education, as well as non-profits and government entities.
Whether this ethics code is truly based on a sense of morality, or if it's just a matter of avoiding the added scrutiny and bad press that would come with attacking a hospital is unclear, but it all comes across as very professional and corporate. They even "guarantee" the reliability of their service.
Since launching in August of 2020, they have advertised their services to other hackers and have grown quickly thanks to the systematized efficiency they provide. The only real difference between DarkSide and any rapidly emerging "disruptor" in the tech world is the specific service they provide.
Namely, once an "affiliate" (hacker) gains access to a company's data, DarkSide steals it, locks the company out with high-level encryption, and holds that information hostage until the company pays out. If their target is unwilling to pay a steep ransom, DarkSide starts leaking their data to a dedicated website, with notifications sent to the media, business partners, and customers.
It's a very businesslike approach that reflects a very businesslike set of priorities. As DarkSide themselves recently put it, "Our goal is to make money and not creating [sic] problems for society." They even promise to provide their target companies with information about how they were compromised, so they can patch holes in their security.
But if they're only after money, why did they target such an essential piece of America's energy infrastructure? If they don't want to create problems for society, uh...why did they?
The short answer is that it was a mistake. For all the care they claim to put into their work, they overlooked certain details this time around and have caused bigger problems and invited more negative attention than they ever intended.
As any good corporation would in these circumstances, they have promised to do better in the future. They insist that, going forward, they will "introduce moderation, and check each company that our partners want to encrypt to avoid social consequences."
The longer answer is that America's energy infrastructure is particularly vulnerable. If DarkSide was only looking at Colonial Pipeline Company's financial bona fides, they may have missed how crucial that pipeline has become and how hacking one company's data — without even interfering with the pipeline directly — could cause so much chaos.
That wasn't always the case. Once upon a time the northeast did a lot of its own refining of oil shipped in from overseas, but the decades-long push to make America "energy-independent" has shifted consumption to local supplies of oil, and more than half of the northeast's refining capacity has been shut down.
Growing domestic production of oil and gas has led to reduced refining capacity in the Northeast, increasing relian… https://t.co/zUQktA7YQF— NYT Climate (@NYT Climate) 1620685369.0
As a result, we've been facing gas shortages just like those in the 1970s under Jimmy Carter...if you don't care to look past the surface. Even The New York Times has been throwing around "crisis in confidence" callbacks; but in truth, the similarities are practically non-existent.
Unlike the 1970s, when OPEC was deliberately strangling the oil supply, there really is no shortage of oil or even of gasoline. Oil is still being slurped up and refined into gasoline. Even the mechanics of the pipeline hadn't been affected directly by DarkSide's attack.
The only problem interfering with the pipeline — until it was resolved on Wednesday night — was that Colonial Pipeline Company's billing system had been knocked out. They couldn't get paid, so they stopped delivering to their customers.
It could still be delivered by truck, and the Biden administration even declared a state of emergency in order to relax regulations around that method of transport. And even if tanker trucks hadn't been an option — admittedly, there weren't enough drivers to meet demand — this was always understood to be a temporary situation.
Because of the professionalism of the criminals involved, there was never a question of getting the pipeline — or the company's accounting system — up and running. It was just a question of whether it would take a few days or something in excess of a week.
It turned out that it took about five days to get the system back online, and it's expected to take several more to get it back up to 100%. In other words, a full tank of gas would probably have lasted most people through this "gas crisis" without sending gas prices skyrocketing. So what happened?
The Viral Gas Hoarders
People freaked out. Like the toilet paper debacle of 2020, what should have been a minor issue of supply chains adjusting to a new normal became a serious problem thanks to the selfish overreactions of the worst among us.
As soon as the news hit that there could be some minor shortages and a temporary price increase, the panic started. Images and videos of people filling car trunks and truck beds with plastic gas cans were outdone by the people filling plastic buckets, storage bins, and massive tote tanks.
Never mind the fact that many plastics will warp or dissolve in the presence of gasoline. These people weren't going to let a temporary shortage pass them by without panic-buying.
While perhaps the most iconic example — a video of a woman filling plastic bags with gasoline — turned out to actually be from 2019, the panic was real. And it was viral in more ways than one.
Let's say one person decides to fill an extra 20 gallons of standard gasoline containers at the pump. They take about twice as long as they usually would, and a small line of cars starts to form. Someone driving by sees that line and decides that this gas crisis thing must be real, and figures — even though they have more than half a tank — they should fill up now, before things get worse.
Next thing you know, that line of cars is spilling into the street, the gas station is starting to run low, and people are calling and texting friends and loved ones, sharing images of the gridlock on social media, encouraging others to take this "gas shortage" seriously and fill up any vehicles and containers they have. And so the virus of gas panic spreads…
1800 lb rated trailer, 1000 lb rated strap, 3000 lbs of fuel with no hazmat placard LET'S GOOOOOOOOO https://t.co/Q8zRmu0uOV— Hunter Biden's laptop repair guy (@Hunter Biden's laptop repair guy) 1620780355.0
A Long-Term Solution?
But now that there's light at the end of the tunnel for this temporary panic, how do we ensure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again? After all, if DarkSide had approached this with more malicious intent, it could likely have been much worse.
So how do we secure our critical energy infrastructure to prevent this kind of issue in the future? If we take it for granted that we probably can't change human nature enough to stop people from panicking and hoarding at the first sign of an issue, there are still a number of options.
For a start, we could mandate comprehensive cybersecurity for companies that provide critical services, preventing this kind of ransomware attack from happening in the first place. Or we could even nationalize pipelines so a profit motive and disrupted billing don't get in the way of delivering what people need.
But there will always be vulnerabilities in a system that relies on centralized infrastructure like pipelines. The most important solution is to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels altogether. If electric vehicles charged by decentralized power sources — e.g. home solar panels — were the norm in the U.S., a gas shortage would be nearly meaningless, and there would be no central energy hub vulnerable to attack.
Clean Energy solutions are staring you in the face, waiting for you to wake up and use them. Maybe If we didn't re… https://t.co/QbPYe5mZyT— Jerome Foster II (@Jerome Foster II) 1620917967.0
Renewables should be at the center of any push for energy security. Even the issues with the Texas power grid during February's freezing weather — though falsely attributed to wind power by many on the Right — were mostly due to issues with fossil fuels and private greed. Widespread adoption of small-scale solar power could actually have buffered the grid against the worst outcomes.
This would also be a great way to avoid the environmental and societal damage of pipeline leaks and spills, like the 2020 instance of more than a million gallons of gasoline spilling out of the Colonial Pipeline in a North Carolina town. While that's perhaps the worst pipeline incident in America's history, there's no shortage of competition, with significant damage to natural habitats and crucial water supplies.
And, as long as we're on the topic of pollution, it's worth pointing out that, if we don't make a dramatic shift off of fossil fuels, climate change is going to get so much worse. They are the single greatest source pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adding energy to complex weather systems, and making freak incidents like February's polar vortex far more common and devastating.
So if you hate gas crises almost as much as you hate the gradual collapse of civilization as a shifting climate brings on natural disasters, disrupting food production and displacing communities around the world, then the obvious way forward is to treat fossil fuels as the evil that they are and to shift away from them as quickly as we possibly can.
Or we can embrace our Mad Max future, let the hoarding virus take us, and start lining up to fill our buckets with guzzoline...
It's amazing what people will hold onto.
At some point or another we've all had an older relative, maybe an uncle or a grandparent, implore us to start collecting stamps or rare coins. It's always the same dubious story about how these collectibles will appreciate in value over the years. Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. Either way, this doesn't really seem like a determining factor of why we, as a species, find it necessary to hoard ostensibly useless objects.
I have two theories. For some, I assume collecting things alleviates the anxiety of everyday life, much like any other hobby. It's something to pour oneself into. For others though–and I assume this is the case for more serious collectors–it's an attempt to capture and preserve a specific time or place. Think about how anal action figure collectors are about keeping their figurines in mint condition, leaving them in their plastic containers for years and years. Collecting at its most fundamental seems like a battle against time, a decision to push back against temporal erosion.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying people collect things because of nostalgia. Everyone feels various degrees of nostalgia. This is a fairly obvious point. That said, what people feel nostalgic for gives great insight into who they are as human beings. With that in mind, we've decided to list off some of the strangest collectibles we've stumbled across in order to give you an idea of how varied people's nostalgia truly is. Time moves in the same direction for everyone. It's what you hold onto that makes you who you are.
Quack Medical Devices
Mysterious potions used to address a variety of medical ailments
Are you into medicine but not into science? Well, have I got the collector's item for you. Whether you want your head bumps measured by a robot phrenologist or you want to get your shoes fitted via x-ray, there's a whole slew of collectors dealing in medical quackery. These collections, some of which are already in museums, stand as a testament to the fallibility of scientific progress.
Just a standard roll
If you're like me, your first thought was Oh jeez, is there some creep out there collecting used toilet paper? Don't panic! None of the toilet paper in Flo and Rich Newman's collection has been used. The collection does, however, sport 900 types of toilet paper from six continents. They didn't always collect TP, however. At first, the Newman's collected antiques, but they found themselves too concerned with the monetary value of their collection. In Flo's words, they "wanted to collect something useless."
Elizabeth Taylor's hair even comes certified!
It there a better way to preserve the memory of meeting your favorite celebrity than stealing a lock of his or her hair? Probably. Still, this is a thing people do. Whether they use the hairs for voodoo or these collectors are trying to clone their celebrity crushes remains to be seen. No one has to do this, and it's certainly very creepy, but maybe some famous people would be flattered to be part of such a collection.
Richard Gibson, with his jar of toenails.
Ripley's Believe It or Not
Yes, really. If you think Quentin Tarantino has a foot fetish, check out Richard Gibson, who has kept every toenail he's clipped since 1978 in a jar. His collection is well into the thousands and is probably the most nauseating thing on the list. Why Richard? Why?
Belly Button Fluff
Graham Barker's meticulously organized belly button lint
Okay, remember when I said the last one was weird? Graham Barker, as certified by the folks at Guinness, has the largest collection of belly button lint in the world. His collection reportedly weighs around 22 grams and is sectioned into jars by decade. It's impossible to tell what Barker hopes to gain by keeping this lint. This collection has sparked an addendum to my theories about why we collect things. I think some people are just insane.
David Morgan, with a few of his salvaged traffic cones
David Morgan has collected over 500 traffic cones. A certifiable nutcase, Morgan says he "feels bad for the cones" when he sees them sitting alone in the street. When he sees one, he reportedly takes it home and gives it a hot bath before storing it in his garage with the rest. A retiree, Morgan spends most of his time tending to cones and adding to his collection. His obsession with cones leads Morgan to lead a solitary life.
The Dixon's love chicken-themed paraphernalia
This is the least specific collection on the list, but Joann and Cecil Dixon's entire house is full of over 6,500 individual pieces of chicken-related knick-knacks. They've got plates, Christmas ornaments, clocks, bowls, statuettes and more. They're currently in the Guinness Book of World Records for what is possibly the most niche award ever given. Some people just love chicken.