Date: October 4, 2011
Abstract: The proposed Keystone XL pipeline — which would carry unstable, corrosive, goopy, hard-to-clean-up bitumen right down the middle of the country — could be a tempting target for terrorists. That’s one of the points I make in a new “Room for Debate” post on the New York Times website.
Pipeline sabotage has become a terrorist “weapon of choice,” wrote Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, in Pipeline & Gas Journal in 2005. In the post-9/11 world, he wrote, “terrorist groups have identified the world’s energy system, ‘the provision line and the feeding to the artery of the life of the crusader nation,’ in the words of al Qaeda, as the Achilles heel of the West.” Luft was warning about sabotage in Iraq and other international hotspots, but we’d be wise to consider the dangers within our own borders as well. As the Checks and Balances Project wrote recently, “It’s hard to think of a larger target for our enemies to take aim at than a 1,661-mile pipeline measuring 36 inches thick and filled with flammable crude oil.”
[UPDATE, Oct. 6, 2011: A few readers have pointed out, rightly, that there are already thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing the country that could serve as targets if terrorists were inclined to attack our energy system -- plus 104 nuclear reactors, more than 100 oil refineries, and a number of nuke-waste storage sites, transmission-grid connector points, etc. Keystone XL would be just one more (albeit high-profile) weak point in an already weak system.
The broader point is that our current energy system as a whole is disturbingly vulnerable to attack or sabotage or mishap. When you're dealing with fossil fuels and nuclear power, you don't even need a terrorist to create a terrible mess -- just think of Fukushima, or the BP oil spill, or the coal-slurry disaster in Tennessee in 2008, or so many other dirty and deadly accidents. This is yet one more great reason to shift to a clean, efficient, distributed energy system -- it would be much more safe and resilient. A wind farm doesn't make a very tempting target. Big solar projects might go awry, but don't spill oil or coal slurry when they do. Solar panels distributed on rooftops across the country would be even more resilient -- knock some out of commission, but the rest keep working. And efficiency is the safest energy source of all; power sources that we don't have to construct can't come under attack or go haywire. Clean energy isn't always going to be perfectly safe, but it's a lot less vulnerable and messy than dirty energy.]
In its latest “Room for Debate” forum, the Times asks whether oil pipelines are safer than they used to be — safe enough that we should feel fine about going forward with the Keystone XL.
Seven panelists weighed in, myself and these gentlemen:
- Mohammad Najafi, editor in chief of the Journal of Pipeline Systems Engineering and Practice
- James Goeke, research hydrogeologist and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
- Adam R. Brandt, acting assistant professor in the department of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford University
- Najmedin Meshkati, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California
- Tim Bradner, economics columnist for The Anchorage Daily News
- Peter Tuft, engineering consultant in Australia
Here’s my “Room for Debate” contribution in full:
Forget the tree huggers. Even many red-blooded red-staters don’t trust that the Keystone XL pipeline would be safe and leak-free.
Husker football fans booed a TransCanada-sponsored video at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium on Sept. 10, spurring the school’s athletic department to drop a sponsorship deal. Nebraska’s Republican governor, Dave Heineman, is calling on the Obama administration to deny a permit for the project; the state’s senators, one Republican and one Democrat, oppose it, too. And in a State Department hearing in Lincoln, Neb., on Sept. 27, about 80 percent of the 1,000-plus citizens in attendance were opposed to the pipeline — despite the fact that pipeline boosters bused in sympathetic crowds from other states.
A big worry is that the pipeline’s proposed route through Nebraska would cross about 250 miles of the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation’s largest underground source for drinking water and crop irrigation. Nebraskans don’t buy the assurances from TransCanada and the U.S. State Department that the pipeline poses no serious risks to their water, land and livelihoods; farmers and ranchers in other Great Plains states don’t either.
Just look at TransCanada’s Keystone I, a smaller pipeline from Alberta to Illinois that began operation in June 2010. In just over a year, this pipeline has leaked at least 14 times, including a spill of about 21,000 gallons in North Dakota — even though TransCanada predicted that spills of 2,100 gallons or more should be expected to happen only once every seven years.
The tar-sands bitumen that Keystone XL would carry is thick, corrosive, unstable, and hard to clean up. Plains Justice, a nonprofit organization, has documented how ill-equipped the sparsely populated northern Plains states are to respond to an oil spill. The Keystone XL could even be a terrorist target.
Too risky? Absolutely — and that’s even before you get into the grave threat that tar sands oil poses to our global climate (Grist, 2011).Title: Cyber Attacks Bombard Energy Sector, Threatening World Oil Supply
Date: December 8, 2011
Source: Huffington Post
Abstract: Hackers are bombarding the world's computer controlled energy sector, conducting industrial espionage and threatening potential global havoc through oil supply disruption.
Oil company executives warned that attacks were becoming more frequent and more carefully planned.
"If anybody gets into the area where you can control opening and closing of valves, or release valves, you can imagine what happens," said Ludolf Luehmann, an IT manager at Shell Europe's biggest company .
"It will cost lives and it will cost production, it will cost money, cause fires and cause loss of containment, environmental damage - huge, huge damage," he told the World Petroleum Congress in Doha.
Computers control nearly all the world's energy production and distribution in systems that are increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks that could put cutting-edge fuel production technology in rival company hands.
"We see an increasing number of attacks on our IT systems and information and there are various motivations behind it - criminal and commercial," said Luehmann. "We see an increasing number of attacks with clear commercial interests, focusing on research and development, to gain the competitive advantage."
He said the Stuxnet computer worm discovered in 2010, the first found that was specifically designed to subvert industrial systems, changed the world of international oil companies because it was the first visible attack to have a significant impact on process control.
But the determination and stamina shown by hackers when they attack industrial systems and companies has now stepped up a gear, and there has been a surge in multi-pronged attacks to break into specific operation systems within producers, he said.
"Cyber crime is a huge issue. It's not restricted to one company or another it's really broad and it is ongoing," said Dennis Painchaud, director of International Government Relations at Canada's Nexen Inc. "It is a very significant risk to our business."
"It's something that we have to stay on top of every day. It is a risk that is only going to grow and is probably one of the preeminent risks that we face today and will continue to face for some time."
Luehmann said hackers were increasingly staging attack over long periods, silently collecting information over weeks or months before attacking specific targets within company operations with the information they have collected over a long period.
"It's a new dimension of attacks that we see in Shell," he said.
Not In Control
In October, security software maker Symantec Corp said it had found a mysterious virus that contained code similar to Stuxnet, called Duqu, which experts say appears designed to gather data to make it easier to launch future cyber attacks.
Other businesses can shut down their information technology (IT) systems to regularly install rapidly breached software security patches and update vulnerable operating systems.
But energy companies cannot keep taking down plants to patch up security holes.
"Oil needs to keep on flowing," said Riemer Brouwer, head of IT security at Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (ADCO).
"We have a very strategic position in the global oil and gas market," he added. "If they could bring down one of the big players in the oil and gas market you can imagine what this will do for the oil price - it would blow the market."
Hackers could finance their operations by using options markets to bet on the price movements caused by disruptions, Brouwer said.
"So far we haven't had any major incidents," he said. "But are we really in control? The answer has to be 'no'."
Oil prices usually rise whenever tensions escalate over Iran's disputed nuclear program - itself thought to be the principal target of the Stuxnet worm and which has already identified Duqu infections - due to concern that oil production or exports from the Middle East could be affected by any conflict.
But the threat of a coordinated attack on energy installations across the world is also real, experts say, and unlike a blockade of the Gulf can be launched from anywhere, with no U.S. military might in sight and little chance of finding the perpetrator.
"We know that the Straits of Hormuz are of strategic importance to the world," said Stephan Klein of business application software developer SAP.
"What about the approximately 80 million barrels that are processed through IT systems?," said Klein, SAP vice president of oil and gas operations in the Middle East and North Africa.
Attacks like Stuxnet are so complex that very few organizations in the world are able to set them up, said Gordon Muehl, chief security officer at Germany's SAP said, but it was still too simple to attack industries over the internet.
Only a few years ago hacking was confined to skilled computer programmers, but thanks to online video tutorials, breaking into corporate operating systems is now a free for all.
hack today," Shell's Luehmann said. "The number of potential hackers
is not a few very skilled people -- it's everyone" (Huffington Post, 2011).
Title: Thousands Of Bombs Dumped In Gulf Of Mexico Pose Huge Threat To Oil Rigs
Date: September 30, 2012
Abstract: After World War II the US government dumped millions of kilograms of unexploded bombs into the Gulf of Mexico. This is no secret; many governments dumped their unexploded ordnance into oceans and lakes from 1946 up until the 1970s when it was made illegal under international treaty.
Now that technology has advanced enough for oil companies to drill deep sea wells in the Gulf of Mexico, those forgotten payloads have become a real hazard.
The US designated certain areas around its coast for the safe dumping of explosives, nerve gas, and mustard gas. The problem is that the records of where these munitions were dumped are incomplete, and many experts believe that a lot of cargo was dumped outside of the designated areas. Now, decades later, no one has any idea of where the bombs are, exactly how many were dumped, or if they still pose a threat to humans or marine life.
William Bryant, a Texas A&M University professor of oceanography, summarised the situation by saying that the “bombs are a threat today and no one knows how to deal with the situation. If chemical agents are leaking from some of them, that's a real problem. If many of them are still capable of exploding, that's another big problem.”
In 2011 BP had to close down its Forties crude oil pipe in the North Sea, which carries 40% of the UK’s oil production, after they found a four metre unexploded German mine laying just next to it. The giant mine was found during a routine inspection of the pipeline, and forced its closure for five days whilst engineers attempted to safely remove it and transport a safe distance away to be detonated.
Professor Bryant remarked that he has come across 227 kg bombs off the coast of Texas and well outside the designated dumping grounds. He also said that at least one pipeline from the Gulf of Mexico had been laid across a chemical weapons dump site.
Terrance Long, the
founder of the underwater munitions conference, said “it makes more sense to
start dealing with the munitions from a risk-mitigation standpoint to be able
to conduct operations in those areas rather than trying to avoid that they are
there” (OilPrice.com, 2012).
Iranians Plan Oil Spill To Block Hormuz Strait - German Weekly
Date: October 15, 2012
Abstract: Iran's Revolutionary Guards chief has drafted a plan to cause an environmental disaster in the Strait of Hormuz to block seaborne oil exports with the goal of removing economic sanctions imposed on Tehran, the weekly Der Spiegel said in an unsourced report.
There was no independent confirmation of the report.
The German newsmagazine reported that Mohammad Ali Jafari's plan, codenamed "Muddy Water", envisages the Iranians steering a tanker onto the rocks in the Strait, the world's most important oil shipping waterway.
"The aim is to block shipping temporarily through the contamination, to 'punish' adjacent Arab states that are hostile to Iran and to force the West to take part in a large-scale cleanup of the waters - and possibly thereby a suspension of sanctions against Tehran," Spiegel said.
"A decontamination would only be possible with technical help from the Iranian authorities and for this the embargo would have to be at least temporarily lifted," it said.
"Iranian firms, some of them owned by the Revolutionary Guards, could even profit from the rescue operations."
Der Spiegel gave no source for its report but said Western intelligence services were studying the plan, which it said now required only the approval of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be put into effect.
Iran's economy is buckling under the weight of Western sanctions aimed at forcing the country to suspend its nuclear programme and negotiate seriously to resolve concerns that it is covertly trying to develop atom bombs, a charge Iran denies.About 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil exports pass out of the Gulf via the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has previously threatened to disrupt Gulf oil shipping if Israel or the United States carries out any attacks on its nuclear facilities (Reuters, 2012).