Lines have formed outside of gas stations. Officials have warned against filling plastic bags with gasoline. Some gas stations have limited purchases and asked customers not to panic.
A cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline has temporarily disrupted the transportation of fuel in the Southeast, threatening to cause short-term gas shortages. But while experts and government officials have pleaded with drivers not to rush to gas stations, panic buying has continued, potentially exacerbating shortages and risking increased prices.
“This is the worst panic buying for gasoline since the Carter Administration,” said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service.
Kloza said outages at more than 10,000 gas stations are spreading “like a bad rash” on the East Coast. Much of the problem is people are buying gasoline at twice the normal rate in the Florida peninsula, as well as in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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Allison Mac, petroleum analyst at fuel-savings app GasBuddy, which tracks prices and shortages, said she has also seen a rise in panic buying. GasBuddy data showed U.S. gasoline demand surged 20% on Monday in comparison to the previous Monday, she said.
“That signals unnecessary buying,” she said. “People fueling up more than they normally would.”
Kloza called the Colonial Pipeline issue a supply problem that should not persist, but “topping off tanks sustains the problem,” he said.
“My advice has been ignored,” he added. “I’ve suggested not panicking but that is akin to putting a box on an office lunch table with a sign that says, ‘Do not look under this box.’”
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“The last thing you want to do is hoard gas,” said Brian Bethune, a professor of applied economics at Boston College. “You’re wasting your time in line. You may be rationed. And there really isn’t much good that can come of it.”
Still, panic buying has continued.
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Marty Cooper, an assistant professor in counseling psychology at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury who has researched panic buying, said panic buying is often caused by anxiety and a sense of uncertainty.
“For some, this is a way of gaining control of what feels like an out-of-control situation,” Cooper said. “You see this in the news so much that people are kind of jumping onto the bandwagon of fear.”
For some who have grown up with a lack of access to essential resources like fuel, this anxiety can be more serious. Living through a pandemic and the shortages and panic buying of items like toilet paper in the past year may also contribute to anxiety, he said.
As news of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack continues to flood new websites and social media feeds, this anxiety can worsen.
“People are getting barraged by this information, and there can be a conforming to the behavior around you,” Cooper said. “People will see other people panic buying, and this will cause them to also feel that they need to panic buy.”
Another factor is lack of trust in government, Cooper said.
“On the news, I was seeing that there is enough gasoline and that it just needs to be redistributed,” he said. “But many people don’t trust the governmental and systemic ability to do that. And for individuals who may have suffered from systemic oppression historically, that trust can be even less.”
Cooper said there are therapy treatments for panic buying-related anxiety. But for those who want an option outside of therapy, Cooper suggested mindfulness techniques, including deep-breathing exercises, meditation, yoga or going for a walk rather than using panic buying to relieve anxiety.
“This is our second major go-around of panic buying in a year, so if someone is feeling distressed by this, please reach out for help,” he said. “You don’t need to do this yourself.”
For those who are still anxious, GasBuddy’s Mac has good news. She expects it will only take a few more days for a full recovery, though panic buying may risk prolonging it.
“It is understandable to feel anxious, but people need to only fill up if they absolutely have to,” she said. “Don’t drive if you don’t need to. Work from home if you can. Know that fuel will be coming in.”