A graphic calling the East Coast fuel supply crunch “Biden’s Gas Crisis.” A tweet speculating that gas stations running dry was an “INSIDE JOB.” A meme depicting the president and vice president cheering about the “Green New Deal” in front of a snaking line at a fuel station.
These and thousands of other social media posts along with conservative websites and commentators this week misleadingly painted President Joe Biden and his administration as catalysts of chaos — who not only mishandled the temporary shutdown of the nation’s largest fuel pipeline on Friday — but engineered it.
In reality, a ransom-seeking cyberattack, not a Biden executive order or energy policy, triggered the shutdown that drove residents of states such as North Carolina to panic-buy so much gas that nearly 70% of service stations in the state remained without fuel on Thursday afternoon.
Biden spoke about the hack Thursday as he sought to assuage fears around the supply crunch, reassuring the public that his administration had helped get the Colonial Pipeline back online Wednesday and that remaining outages at gas stations were a “temporary situation” that panic-buying would only exacerbate.
Still, some of the most widely shared tweets discussing the gas crunch between Friday and Wednesday lobbed criticism toward the president, according to the media intelligence firm Zignal Labs. Posts surfaced by Zignal blamed the president for the outages, criticized his response and condemned him for canceling plans for the Keystone XL oil pipeline — though that project, which would have built a crude oil pipeline, would have had no impact on the current situation.
Misleading narratives targeting Biden began picking up speed on Monday, the day North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper became the first of several governors to declare a state of emergency over the disruption.
“Wouldn’t it be weird if the CYBER-ATTACK that shutdown the United States’ top fuel line was an INSIDE JOB to pretend Joe Biden isn’t responsible for the insane increase in gas price..” read a widely shared tweet by former Florida congressional candidate Chuck Callesto.
“People can’t complain about gas prices if there’s no gas to buy,” read the caption of an image depicting a sinister Biden with his fingers interlaced, retweeted by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Colorado.
Other posts claimed the long gas lines across the Southeast U.S. were a harbinger of America’s future under Democrats, casting Biden as a socialist in a strategy that Republicans have frequently turned to in recent years.
“Gas shortages now, food shortages tomorrow?” tweeted Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren. “Wow ... starting to feel like socialism is on the way....”
In another narrative, posts equated Biden to former President Jimmy Carter who saw his presidency crumble as a result of the 1979 fuel shortage. A statement from former President Donald Trump on Wednesday, amplified by conservative websites including Breitbart News, branded a laundry list of national and global challenges as Biden’s fault.
“Jimmy mishandled crisis after crisis, but Biden has CREATED crisis after crisis,” Trump wrote. “First there was the Biden Border Crisis (that he refuses to call a Crisis), then the Biden Economic Crisis, then the Biden Israel Crisis, and now the Biden Gas Crisis.”
Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday first broadcast the graphic of Biden smiling with the words “Biden’s Gas Crisis,” a term that later gained momentum on Facebook and Twitter.
Recent world events have challenged the Biden administration in its economic goals. Over the past week, it has faced a disappointing monthly jobs report, worrisome signs of inflation and escalating violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip with deaths that could foreshadow a war in the Middle East.
All the while, Biden is still attempting to vaccinate the nation against the coronavirus, distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in economic aid and negotiate his own infrastructure and families plans that total a combined $4 trillion.
Higher energy prices often have political fallout, complicating reelection campaigns for incumbents outside oil-producing regions.
With gas prices already rising as COVID-19 restrictions loosen and Americans travel more, the pipeline’s shutdown has created an even worse public relations problem for Biden. Fuel hoarding and lines at the pump have made it difficult to gain control of the narrative.
The Biden administration’s message that the problem was a supply crunch rather than a gas shortage, while accurate, didn’t satisfy Americans who couldn’t find gas to fill their cars, according to Doug Heye, a Republican strategist based in Washington.
“You have Republican division over the House Republican Conference and you had a hearing yesterday where people were basically denying what happened on Jan. 6,” Heye said. “If you want to push a conservative message, the Biden administration just did you a favor.”
An Upper Midwestern oil pipeline continued operating Wednesday, despite a shutdown demand from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that the operator warned could lead to fuel disruptions similar to those resulting from a cyberattack on an East Coast system.
Whitmer ordered Line 5 closed last November because of the potential for a spill in a channel linking two of the Great Lakes. As her May 12 deadline arrived, Canadian pipeline company Enbridge said only the federal government has regulatory authority over its operations.
Enbridge, backed by numerous chambers of commerce and Republican legislators in Michigan, seized on last week’s hack of the Colonial Pipeline, which delivers about 45% of the gasoline consumed on the East Coast. The resulting shutdown led to panic-buying that has left thousands of filling stations without fuel and motorists in long lines.
“The cyberattack that triggered an unplanned, temporary closure brings to the forefront what consumers could face,” said Mike Moeller, Enbridge’s director of operations for the Great Lakes region. “Without Line 5, consumers will shoulder the burden of supply disruptions and related price increases, particularly for propane and transportation fuel.”
Whitmer’s office said in a statement that the Colonial Pipeline interruption “shows the danger of relying heavily on a single energy supply. That’s why Governor Whitmer has put in place a plan to protect jobs, diversify and expand our renewable energy resources, and ensure Michigan’s energy needs are met, while also taking action to get the oil out of the water as soon as possible.”
Line 5 critics said previous shutdowns, including one last summer when a pipe support was damaged, caused no gasoline shortages or price gouging. Drawing connections to the Colonial Pipeline is “fraudulent and nothing more than a last-ditch effort to scare people,” said Rich Bergmann, owner of Lake Charlevoix Brewing Co.
Line 5 moves oil and natural gas liquids for 645 miles (1038 kilometers) through northern Wisconsin and Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario. The nearly 23 million gallons (87 million liters) it carries daily are refined for gasoline, jet fuel and propane in several Midwestern states, as well as Ontario and Quebec.
A roughly 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) segment divides into two pipes that cross the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The state in 1953 granted an easement to place the pipes on the straits bottom. Whitmer revoked it, saying Enbridge hadn’t met its safety provisions, which the company disputes.
The state sued to enforce the order, which is pending as a federal judge considers whether to retain jurisdiction or send the case to a Michigan court.
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