Addressing the evolving threats at U.S. and gas pipelines.
A vast natural gas and petroleum pipeline network weaves its way across the United States. Traversing more than 2.5 million miles, this energy transmission highway is the largest in the world, delivering fuel that powers our daily lives, livelihoods and economy.
Without this essential piece of our critical energy infrastructure, there would be no gasoline for cars and trucks, no heating and cooling for our homes and no jet fuel for airplanes. Manufacturing would cease and there would be no raw material for the plastics needed to make cell phones, tires, vehicles and countless other products. While wind and solar energy power is developing rapidly, some predict natural gas and oil will continue providing about half of the world's energy for many years to come, requiring its safe distribution to those who need it now and in the future.
As important as pipelines are, they are also increasingly vulnerable given the immense, widely dispersed and often isolated areas they cover. Last year, the number of physical attacks on the U.S. power grid infrastructure rose 71% from 20211 according to a division of North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). The growing number of physical attacks on pipelines and other areas of our critical energy infrastructure shows an alarming trend of increasing risk from a range of threat actors, including vandals, thieves, and extremists aiming to profit from their crimes or disrupt fossil fuel distribution.
The first step is understanding the locations where the risks are greatest, identifying which sites are the most highly critical and weighing both the risk probability and consequences to find meaningful yet cost-effective solutions.
The source of the threats matters less than managing the risk through positive, preventative measures using risk-based best practices. The geographically dispersed nature of pipelines presents its challenges, and pipeline networks also include a complex mix of different types of facilities—like pumping and compression stations—many of which are also remotely located and pose their own set of security concerns.
Prompted by the serious and evolving threat environment, the lead federal agency for both physical and cybersecurity of the nation's pipelines, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) updated its security guidelines in 20212 with recommendations to establish and implement risk-based corporate security programs for managing security threats, incidents and responses customized and reflecting the site-specific security environment. Some in the industry may argue the guidelines, not yet adopted as enforceable regulations, may impose unrealistic timelines.
Good, Better, Best Options
Many pipeline operators are taking the initiative to implement stronger physical and cyber security measures to boost resiliency and ensure the uninterrupted flow of energy in the face of malicious threats. Security leaders in the oil and gas industry know there is no single security solution or size to fit every location or situation. It’s often a case of applying the most cost-effective way to mitigate risk for each site by categorizing the options as good, better, best.
Employing this approach and depending on the site, vulnerability and risk, solutions can range from those as simple as better locks, more facility lighting and perimeter fencing to more advanced methods for controlling and monitoring access via card keys or authentication devices using either professionally monitored alarms or human observation. More innovative video system technologies with cellular and thermal imaging capabilities can be deployed at higher risk, remote sites for deterrence and rapid detection. Sometimes it’s a matter of first needing a solid solution to address the threat today with the option of scalability to move up to new or more sophisticated systems later on.
Innovations being tested today may, in the future, offer the most remarkable ways of solving these threats and security concerns and reduce operational costs associated with security countermeasures.
Currently, many pipeline operators rely on physical guards or inspectors to look for damage along the vast expanse of pipelines often driving or flying over the sites to check for any issue that could compromise the flow of oil or gas through the pipeline.
As innovations in security technologies mature and the regulatory environment becomes more favorable, utilities will have the option to select a new set of solutions for a more cost-effective way to surveil locations like pipelines. For example, autonomous outdoor drones could one day bring a faster, more affordable and sustainable way to monitor these widespread sites as part of a comprehensive security risk management program.
Protecting this key area of our critical energy infrastructure from risks and evolving threats requires innovative thinking today and in the future to ensure we can rely on the safe, efficient and timely delivery of energy when we need it to power our homes, businesses and the national economy.
- The Wall Street Journal Power-Grid Attacks Surge and Are Likely to Continue, Study Finds (February 21, 2023) by Katherine Blunt.
- Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) Pipeline Security Guidelines March 2018, updated April 2021.