Lessons from the Fuel Shortage

By Pierce Holloway, Editor-in-Chief


If you are a driver living in the Southeast, you likely felt the very real impacts of last month’s fuel shortage. The crisis began at 5:30 am on May 7th, when a ransom note from hackers was found on a Colonial Pipeline control room computer. This event halted 2.5 million barrels per day of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel shipments, making it the most disruptive cyberattack ever on U.S. energy infrastructure.[1] Pressing pause on a pipeline which supplies roughly 45% of the East Coast’s fuel resulted in a ripple effect across the southeast, with rampant reports of price gouging and empty gas stations. According to the fuel tracking company GasBuddy, 65% of North Carolina’s gas stations were left without fuel in the wake of the attack. While the hack itself did disrupt the supply of fuel to stations across the region, drivers’ panic-buying caused stations to run empty much faster than expected.

May’s fuel shortage was not without precedent. In the 1970’s the nation experienced two intense periods of fuel shortages. The gas crises of 1973 & 1979 were spurred not by a cyber attack, but by geopolitics, the Iranian Revolution, and OPEC, all issues exacerbated by industry-wide fuel inefficient vehicles.[2] What lessons can we take from this crisis and what implications does it have for our current transportation network?

Lessons Learned

One: The reliance on fossil fuels is not a resilient future for the United States.

Fossil fuels have allowed our country to develop and grow at an unprecedented rate, allowing for significant advances in science and technology. However, the U.S. has reached a point where we must diversify our energy sources for the future of our economy, transportation, and health.

  • Economy – Despite our robust gross domestic product (GDP) output, a continually fossil fuel-dependent United States is likely to reach a tipping point and be left behind as other countries lead the way economically.
  • Transportation – Our country’s transportation system is dependent upon single occupancy vehicles. What happens the next time 30% of a region’s workforce cannot acquire gas to get to work? The U.S. needs systems in place to prevent the disparate impacts fuel shortages have on those who cannot afford to live within walking distance to work.
  • Health – The negative health impacts of burning fossil fuels for combustion engines are well-known, with a harmful cocktail of particulate matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and more. Exposure to fossil fuels results in detrimental impacts such as lower life expectancy and reduced lung function, and these impacts are not equitably distributed. A 2014 study found that living in majority Hispanic neighborhoods were associated with higher air pollutant exposures, and newer research has revealed that historically redlined areas have significantly higher rates of asthma-related emergency room visits.[3]

Two: Continued reliance on fossil fuels stands to make the United States defense network fragile.

Our government has acknowledged for some time that energy policies are inextricably linked to our national security. The first sentence of the 1981 Energy Policies for Resilience and National Security report summarizes the problem exceedingly well: “The U.S. energy system is highly vulnerable to large-scale failures with catastrophic consequences, and is becoming more so.” Fast forwarding 40 years later, we find ourselves living in a country still extremely susceptible to large-scale failures, perhaps increasingly so due the rise of cyberattacks. Prior to the May Colonial Pipeline cyberattack, the 2020 discovery of the Solarwinds attack impacted the U.S. Department of Energy and revealed the previous worst attack on energy infrastructure in history.[4]

Three: The recent fuel shortage underlines the need for increased prevalence of effective and accessible public transit options.

Public transit can lead not only to more equitable outcomes, but more economic resilience in the face of fuel shortages. As of 2019, 76.3% workers over 16 reported driving alone to work, while only 5.2% utilized public transportation.[5] By decreasing our reliance on single occupancy vehicles, we correspondingly decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. However it is important to note that electric and other alternative fuel vehicles are a not a silver bullet. While an electric car produces fewer carbon emissions than a traditional vehicle, its true carbon emissions depend on the electricity source. As of February 2021, over 60% of the U.S.’s electricity is still sourced from fossil fuels.[6] While renewable electricity generation is rising, vehicles charged at home are not a perfectly green choice. And a single occupancy vehicle, electric or not, is still not as important as focusing on improving public transportation.

Four: Sprawling development patterns have played a crucial role in the rise of single occupancy vehicles.

The fuel shortage demonstrates that sprawling development cannot feasibly ensure long-term resilience for the U.S. A recent report from the Census Bureau reported that the average one-way commute for Americans reached an all-time high of 27.6 minutes in 2019.[7] This, combined with the previously mentioned majority of workers driving alone to work, demonstrates the extremely arduous daily commute American workers engage in. Many American suburbs are also intentionally designed for isolation from a larger societal fabric, stemming from our racist and classist roots. How can suburbanites be expected to efficiently utilize public transit if their own neighborhoods are designed for isolation rather than interwovenness?

Urban sprawl also substantially increases congestion, resulting in commuters spending more and more time in a sea of brake lights.[8] All this time stopping and starting compounds particulate emissions, decreases worker productivity, and results in less time for workers to spend with friends and family.[9]

In recent years there has been a resurgence in younger Americans wanting to live in and moving to the urban core, leading to higher education and income metrics.[10] A shift to living in denser, more interconnected communities seems to be growing across the U.S., but without political support and continued movement away from emissions-producing vehicles, will this trend continue?


U.S. residents need and deserve efficient transit wherever they live, and we cannot become truly sustainable nor equitable while sprawling development continues. Understanding the detrimental impacts of our current structures is the first step to creating and implementing improvements. The Colonial Pipeline disruption highlighted significant issues with our ongoing car-dependence, those which are not only important but also completely possible to address. Examples of effective transit systems and development patterns exist across the world, and the U.S. should learn from others who have successfully found a way to move away from pollutant-emitting fuels. Politics will always be a hurdle, but residents across the country deserve leaders willing to undertake efforts to explain and address the negative health and well-being outcomes  our current transportation and development patterns impose.

[1] Joseph Menn and Stephanie Kelly. 2021. “Colonial Pipeline slowly restarts as Southeast U.S. scrambles for fuel.” Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/top-us-fuel-pipeline-edges-toward-reopening-gasoline-shortages-worsen-2021-05-12/.

[2] The Washington Post. 2021. “Gas shortages and lines in the 1970s wreaked national havoc.” Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/05/13/gas-shortages-1970s/.

[3] Casey A. Nardone et al. 2020. “Associations between historical residential redlining and current age-adjusted rates of emergency department visits due to asthma across eight cities in California: An ecological study.” The Lancet. Planetary Health, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(19)30241-4.

[4] Dina Temple-Raston. 2021. “A ‘Worst Nightmare’ Cyberattack: The Untold Story Of The SolarWinds Hack.” NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2021/04/16/985439655/a-worst-nightmare-cyberattack-the-untold-story-of-the-solarwinds-hack.

[5] U.S. Census Bureau. 2019. “Five-Year Estimate.”

[6] U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2021. “What is U.S. energy generation by energy source?” Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=427&t=3.

[7] U.S. Census. 2021. “Census Bureau Estimates Show Average One-Way Travel Time to Work Rises to All-Time High.” Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/one-way-travel-time-to-work-rises.html.

[8] Bruce Schaller. 2019. “What Urban Sprawl Is Really Doing to Your Commute..” Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-03/when-bad-commutes-make-bad-transportation-policy

[9] Van Ommeren, J. N., & Gutiérrez-i-Puigarnau, E. (2011). Are workers with a long commute less productive? An empirical analysis of absenteeism. Regional Science and Urban Economics, 41(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.regsciurbeco.2010.07.005

[10] Richard Fry. 2020. “Prior to COVID-19, Urban Core Counties in the U.S. Were Gaining Vitality on Key Measures.” Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/07/29/prior-to-covid-19-urban-core-counties-in-the-u-s-were-gaining-vitality-on-key-measures/

Pierce Holloway is a second-year master’s student at the Department of City and Regional Planning with a focus on Climate Change Adaptation. Before coming to Chapel Hill he worked as a geospatial analyst for Urban3, working on visualizing economic productivity of communities and states. Through his coursework he hopes to explore the nexus between adaptation for climate change and community equitability. In his free time, he enjoys long bike rides, trail running, and any excuse to play outside. 

Edited by Emma Vinella-Brusher, Managing Editor

Featured image courtesy of the Tallahassee Democrat