The statistics describing the nation's oil and gas infrastructure reflect a vast and highly decentralized energy industry. The U.S. is home to roughly 878,000 wells, 161 oil refineries, 726 gas-processing plants, 1,280,000 miles of natural gas pipeline and 220,000 miles of oil pipe, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Thousands of independent owners and operators are the driving force connecting these elements.

The sprawling nature of the energy supply chain reveals both its strength and weakness. Consequently, a single act of sabotage at any one point in this chain is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the system as a whole. That is the upside to a decentralized infrastructure.

BULL'S-EYE Combustibility of oil and gas make its infrastructure a natural target. (Photo by David Predeger)

The downside is that the system is vulnerable to sustained or coordinated attacks. Its web-like nature renders protection a near impossibility. The explosive nature of the commodity in all forms makes oil and gas infrastructure an attractive target–the fiery, dramatic result ensures extensive media coverage.

Historically, the oil and gas industry has enjoyed a well-earned reputation of quickly returning damaged assets to service. However, "industry's response capabilities were not designed to handle extensive, well-organized acts of terrorism aimed at key elements of the energy system," concludes a recent NAS study that evaluated the role of science and technology in preparing the nation for catastrophic terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, security for most oil and gas facilities was increased. Companies rapidly inventoried critical operating assets and prioritized their security actions.

This initial task was made somewhat easier by the unfortunate reality of the oil and gas business. "The industry has the advantage of learning about security by working internationally in areas that are politically unstable. We are able to adapt tactics that have been used overseas to domestic facilities," says Michael Shanahan, spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute.

As illustrated by the sustained bombing of Colombia's Cano Limon pipeline, however, such knowledge transfer is unlikely to be a magic bullet. Despite a heavy and constant presence of armed guards, the Cano Limon pipeline was bombed 40 times in 2002 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The year before, the Marxist rebels hit the 780-kilometer line, owned jointly by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Colombia's state-owned Ecopetrol, 170 times. Late in 2002, the U.S. sent 70 Army Special Forces troops to help train Colombian soldiers to protect the 120,000-bbl/day pipeline. Despite the U.S. presence, the rebels have vowed to continue their resistance. In oil-rich Arauca province, 29 rebels were killed in a mid-February battle with government troops.

Oil and gas companies are reluctant to discuss their vulnerabilities or to say much about specific steps undertaken to accommodate a post-9/11 reality. Few want to underscore the reality that, outside of guns, gates and guards, physical options to protect the system are limited. The petroleum institute acknowledges that recent security measures don't incorporate new technology or designs but are instead, "a new emphasis...a more systematic approach and a continuing re-evaluation" of individual company contingency plans in consultation with federal agencies, according to Marty Matheson, API general manager for pipelines.


Over the decades that oil and gas infrastructure evolved in this country, there was no need to consider coordinated terrorism or even substantial domestic vandalism as a design criteria. The historical siting approach of "common utility corridors" that contain pipelines, transmission lines, telecommunications cables, railway and even highways heightens the probability of cascading effects from an attack on any of these assets.

This siting strategy was a "good engineering practice in the past, but from a terrorist standpoint, it is making the job easier," says Dick Madenburg, executive vice president of the Sacramento office of consulting engineer Parsons Brinckerhoff. Madenburg is head of the company's security consulting. "As a society, we have to realize that approaches of the past have major flaws, we need new ground rules," he says.

"Government and industry have to get together" to protect oil and gas infrastructure, says Edward Badolato, executive vice president for homeland security for The Shaw Group, Baton Rouge. There has been some movement toward more advanced technology and research and development "but it is not where it should be," he says.

WEAKEST LINK Pipeline security involves detection and response, but not deterrence. (Photo courtesy of Conocophillip)

One of the biggest challenges is the nation's pipeline system. The historical approach to security is detection and response, not deterrence. Automated control systems detect loss of pipeline pressure. Shutdown protocols are then activated to isolate the damaged area and repair teams are sent into the field.

Most oil and gas pipelines are underground, so in large part this historical approach may continue to work. Still, vital interconnections and compression or pumping stations are on the surface.

"Compressor stations to maintain pressure cost up to $40 million each and are located every 60 miles on a pipeline. If these compressor stations were targeted, the pipeline would be shut down for an extended period," says a report by the Council of Foreign Relations.

In many cases, little more than a padlock and chain-link fence separate a saboteur from these assets. Consequently, hardening these sites is a key and on-going task for pipeline owners. This includes better fencing, stricter control room access and improved surveillance technology, according to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines (AOPL), an industry trade group in Washington, D.C.

These current actions, however, must ultimately give way to more substantial efforts, argue security experts. "We need to look at how to make pipeline system nodes more resistant to bombs," says Badolato. Materials technology is available, some of it transferable from national defense applications, but it has not yet been picked up by the oil and gas industry, he says.

An R&D initiative of 30-plus oil and gas companies may help to enhance pipeline security and safety. AOPL and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America are overseeing the collaborative effort.

One of the issues under study is the development of industry-specific satellite-based remote imaging techniques, both radar and optical, in combination with image processing and GIS capabilities to improve pipeline surveillance.

"Currently, most lines are patrolled every two weeks," says Raymond Paul, spokesperson for AOPL. "Satellite surveillance offers the possibility of real-time observation."

Military applications may provide a another option. "Remotely operated drone aircraft [in] Afghanistan showed how successful this can be," says Badolato. Also under study are underground acoustic cables to detect unauthorized third-party contacts with a pipeline itself and the surrounding area.

Another key concern that companies are struggling to address in the event of multiple simultaneous attacks is the potential impact of scarce specialized tools and expensive, often custom-made parts on recovery time. "Repairing the pipeline itself is nothing, just circumferential welding, but spare parts and specialty tools will be a big part of the challenge," says Madenburg.

In response, companies are working to develop cooperative agreements with competitors to share these elements should a critical asset be compromised. Some experts have also suggested the government fund a stockpile of backup components for the energy sector.

Like pipelines, oil refineries are crucial to U.S. energy infrastructure and a possible terrorist target. "Refineries are complex process units, some people call them bombs waiting to go off, and they are definitely a target," Badolato says.

Unlike other elements of the oil and gas industry, refinery operations are more concentrated geographically. For example, over 40% of the nation's refining capacity is concentrated in Texas and Louisiana. Approximately 60% of the Northeast's refined oil products come from these refineries, mostly by pipeline.


Even with this concentration, however, a single attack on one component of the infrastructure would not necessarily be economically catastrophic because most refineries have several trains of duplicative process units.

"Oil refineries have incidents all the time. These do not cause major disruptions," notes Madenburg. Nevertheless, refineries have increased security significantly over the past two years. Although preliminary investigations suggest that a malfunctioning barge pump caused a Feb. 21 explosion and fire at a Staten Island refinery, most New Yorkers first thought of another terrorist attack.

"Before 9/11, there was easy access to refineries. Trucks could go in 24-7," says Hubert Hays, a La Grande, Ore.-based independent oil and gas drilling consultant. "There were often no guards at gates. Now there are barriers and guards."

Dramatic and potentially life-threatening fires are also a danger at the 54 liquefied natural gas facilities in the U.S. LNG is produced by compressing and cooling natural gas into a liquid for easier transportation, typically by specially designed and built LNG tanker ships, which then offload the product to land-based storage tanks.

The Coast Guard has beefed up security substantially in Boston and all other harbors with LNG facilities, but future design of LNG land storage tanks and other fuel tank farms may include an underground location to minimize the risk of attack.

"It is much more expensive to build tank farms underground but it is far more secure," says Madenburg. He believes that the shift in design concepts will take a while to become a reality. "However, already some storage is completely underground, such as at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve," he says. Large natural gas storage fields in salt domes are another example.

While physical oil and gas infrastructure are generally decentralized, their operation is not. The industry relies heavily on supervisory control and data acquisition systems, making it vulnerable to cyber-attack. This vulnerability may be the weakest link in the system as a whole given the rapid rate of automation in the industry over the last decade. In response, "companies are now pushing their vendors to harden these systems, to provide more robust terror-resistant SCADA systems," Badolato says.

Over the long-term, the implementation of advanced physical and cyber security measure will depend on finding ways to pay for them. Currently, most companies are absorbing the added costs of security although discussions are on-going with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to develop ways to recoup these expenses. Resolving the cost issue, says Paul, will likely have to come before any substantial security changes in oil and gas infrastructure are realized.

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