Photo: A line of cars outside a gas station in Charlotte, NC (Source: Tribune SC)
By David Martinez
The Colonial Pipeline, which carries an estimated 45% of gasoline and diesel consumed on the East Coast, was shut down due to software failure last Friday, reportedly hacked in a ransomware attack from outside of the US. The shutdown of the pipeline, which runs from Houston to New York, has initiated a cascade of effects that reflect imperialism’s anarchic nature, as it is organized to serve the demands of finance capital rather than the needs of society.
The shutdown has primarily impacted the states in the southeastern US, which depend heavily on the pipeline for their supply of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Gas prices in the affected area rose to their highest in six-and-a-half years, further impacting workers who are already bearing the brunt of the deepening general crisis of imperialism as well as gas prices that are beginning to climb as demand increases.
The monopoly press has been quick to hone in on foreign hackers as the culprit and push the ruling class’s narrative that heightened cybersecurity is the solution to the issue. US Imperialists have used the pipeline shutdown as means to push the inter-imperialist conflict with Russia, with Biden criticizing Russia for not taking stronger action against hacker networks.
This agenda ignores the fact that the Colonial pipeline has a history of mishaps which have affected distribution in the past and reflect negligent management, including a recent severe oil leak last Fall which is now causing major environmental damage in the surrounding area near Charlotte. Regardless of the mishaps, the irrational concentration of the oil industry and its methods of distribution are vulnerable to all manners of disruption, having an outsized impact on workers when the majority of transportation in US society is oriented around private automobiles.
The capitalist system, particularly in the US, has ensured dependency on private vehicles in order for workers to survive, serving the profits of the oil and automobile industries in tandem. In large portions of the country, it is nearly impossible to maintain a job without a vehicle to drive to work, and it is no mystery why the people rush to secure supplies to ensure they are able to maintain their mobility in the face of potential shortages. The hoarding is further encouraged by US imperialist society’s promotion of individualism and competition at every level, especially among workers and the poor.
The pipeline shutdown sparked a predictable scramble by consumers across multiple states to stock up on gasoline, who formed long lines at gas stations and which resulted in further shortages. By Thursday morning, an estimated 68% of gas stations in North Carolina were without gas, as Governor Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in response to the capitalist-caused crisis.
The shortages and rising gas prices contrast with the patterns at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when demand for oil dipped as many parts of the world went into a lockdown. At this time, oil prices hit lows and oil executives expressed their empty fears of lost profits and wasted supplies. Whether in crisis or not, oil prices across the world are manipulated by imperialist monopolies which restrict their production to service their profits, with cartels such as OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) formed by third world nations joining together to compete against the larger imperialist monopolies.
The pipeline has five owners from five different countries across four continents: the largest owner is US-based Koch industries, with other companies based in Canada, South Korea, Australia, and the Netherlands. The pipeline, which broke ground on construction in 1962, carries oil from the gulf coast of Texas, where around a quarter of all oil is refined in the US with most activity centered around Houston. Houston is a dominant force in the global oil industry due primarily to historical chance, as the discovery of oil in East Texas in the early 1900’s concentrated capital in the city.
By Wednesday, Colonial Pipeline Co. announced that normal operations had resumed, but this will have a delayed impact on gas availability. The next day, numerous gas stations in states across the Southeast remained without fuel and lines persisted outside gas stations. Like the April blockage of the Suez Canal, due to a stuck freighter which caused major disruptions to global shipping, the pipeline shutdown clearly reveals the inefficient and vulnerable management of valuable resources under imperialism and the need to entirely transform the backwards social relations and economic base that perpetuates this chaos.
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