It's On The Pipeline

In the nineteen years since 19 Islamic terrorists commandeered four commercial passenger airliners and murdered more than 3,000 innocent men, women and children, much progress has been made to protect our national infrastructure. While vulnerabilities remain, it is apparent that energy infrastructure is emerging as a primary target. Terrorists see attacks on the world’s energy system as a certain way to disrupt the global economy. The possibility of energy terrorism doesn’t generate the same attention as potential chemical, biological or nuclear terrorism, but the economic implications of an attack is potentially enormous.

The possibility of energy terrorism doesn’t generate the same attention as potential chemical, biological or nuclear terrorism, but the economic implications of an attack is potentially enormous.

We all know that bad news travels fast. An attack against an energy installation in one part of the world causes havoc throughout the world’s financial markets. Any disruption in the supply of oil, coupled with fear and speculation, costs billions of dollars in lost productivity for countries, industries and consumers. Getting oil to market has become as important as pulling it out of the ground.

Energy terrorism is not a future threat — it is today’s threat. All over the world, pipelines, tankers, refineries and oil terminals are under attack. In Colombia, rebels have blown so many holes in the Occidental Petroleum’s 477-mile Caño Limón pipeline that it has become known as “the flute.” These attacks, numbering more than a thousand, shut the pipeline down for months at a time, cost Colombia billions in lost revenues and have killed or injured hundreds of people. Four years ago, a bomb mounted on a tanker truck almost blew up Israel’s largest oil depot near Tel Aviv. Later that year, an al-Qaeda cell plotted to attack Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura — the world’s largest offshore oil loading facility through which a tenth of global oil supply flows daily.

Since the United States led the invasion of Iraq, there have been more than 316 documented pipeline attacks. Two years ago, three boats were used in a suicide attack on the Basra terminal zone, Iraq’s only offshore export outlet in the Persian Gulf and one of the most heavily guarded facilities of its kind in the world. It is estimated that pipeline sabotage has cost Iraq more than $10 billion in oil revenues despite the high priority coalition forces continue to place on pipeline protection.

The magnitude of the task is daunting, as there are more than 3 million miles of unprotected oil and gas pipelines worldwide. At an average cost of more than $1.3 million dollars per mile to build, that adds up to $3.6 trillion worth of unprotected pipelines — not to mention the value of the petroleum or gas running through them. In the United States alone, there are nearly half a million miles of oil and gas transmission pipelines.

The Transportation Security Administration is the lead federal agency for security in all modes of transportation — including pipelines — not just the nation’s airports. The agency oversees identification and protection of critical pipeline assets through security reviews, risk assessment and inspections. The Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS), within the Department of Transportation (DOT), is the lead federal regulator of pipeline safety. While TSA and the OPS have distinct missions, pipeline security and safety are intertwined.

Fortunately, the vast majority of pipeline systems are underground and less vulnerable than above-ground facilities. The physical plant of these facilities may be damaged with explosives or by other mechanical means. Alternatively, computer control systems may be cyber-attacked, or both physical and cyber attacks may happen at the same time. Some pipelines also may be indirectly disrupted by other types of terror strikes, like attacks on regional electricity grids or telecommunications networks that can, in turn, affect dependent pipeline control and safety systems. Since pipelines supply fuel for vehicles, power plants, aircraft, heating, military bases and other uses, serious disruption of a pipeline network poses additional downstream risks.

Like all other forms of security, energy infrastructure protection begins with communications. Ensuring smooth and reliable communication along pipelines presents many specific challenges. Examples include a harsh environment, long stretches to be bridged between different pump stations and the recent trend toward higher bandwidths. This industry presents a typically “stretched” environment, in which pipelines often connect more than 100 gas wells and run for many hundreds of miles. Various communication devices are in place along the entire line — at the remote head ends, the central manifold and the processing plant. These need to be interconnected to enable the swift and reliable exchange of data for voice, LAN and video between these substations and the central control center. A fiber-optic multiplexer system can provide a cost-effective, flexible and future-proof solution to the problem of data transmission along pipelines.

Effective, reliable and secure telecommunications is essential to the safe, continuous operation of oil and gas pipelines. In addition to monitoring and control, it can provide everything from telephone links between operatives to the transmission of CCTV signals and emergency shutdown systems. The communications challenge is to provide a resilient, proven and integrated system to meet the specific needs of pipeline security.

Finally, the task is to enhance the security of the pipeline system and ensure adequate surveillance and monitoring. The main response in the event of a crisis is to recover quickly from any interruption and limit the scope and nature of any release. In that sense, the response to terrorist attacks may be similar to that taken to respond to a more conventional attack with two major exceptions:

  • Any terrorist attack can result in the area surrounding the incident to be declared a crime scene, potentially limiting a company’s ability to repair the pipeline and restore service.
  • If a radioactive agent, a nuclear explosive, a bomb contaminated with nuclear materials or a biochemical agent is used to rupture a pipeline, even the immediate response (stopping the rupture, clean up or restoration) can be significantly more complicated and much more difficult.

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