What's in the Pipeline: A Look at Technology Trends and Policy Initiatives in the Works to Protect Pipelines against Disruptions

Article excerpt

It was October 4, 2001, and much of the world hadn't gotten over the shock of the dramatic events of three weeks earlier. The nation was still on high alert, and on edge, when operators of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline got word that a surveillance helicopter had spotted a massive oil spill 80 miles north of Fairbanks. Could terrorists have struck again so soon alter 9-11, this time at the heart of" the U.S oil industry? Operators shut down the pipeline and dispatched workers to find the cause of the spill and minimize environmental damage.

As it turned out, the culprit was not an international terrorist but a drunken local resident who had pierced the 25-year-old pipeline with a bullet from a .338 caliber rifle. The single shot resulted in the release of more than 285,000 gallons of crude oil across two acres of tundra forest. It also essentially shut down the pipeline, which carries one million gallons of oil per day, for more than three days.

While the economic and social disruption from a massive terrorist strike on a pipeline would likely be enormous, the Alaska incident illustrates how even "minor" attacks on the U.S. pipeline system can have widespread downstream implications.

While it is the more mundane acts of vandalism and sabotage that have the higher probability of occurring, the threat of terrorism must be taken seriously. Although pipelines haven't been attacked by terrorists in the United States, the risk to pipelines is more than conjecture. They are a preferred target elsewhere in the world, especially Colombia. In the past 20 years, pipelines rank second among terrorists' energy industry targets, according to Ed Badolato, executive vice president for homeland security, the Shaw Group, and an expert in transportation and energy security.

Moreover, the terrorist organization al Qaeda has explicitly expressed its interest in attacking the U.S. energy infrastructure: Ahmed Ressam, the terrorist who was caught transporting explosives from Canada just days before the millennium celebration, has testified that he and his cohorts had been trained to attack pipelines.

What's at stake. Largely out of sight, U.S. pipelines transport millions of gallons of crude oil and refined petroleum product each day. About 1.2 million miles of" liquid and gas pipelines snake through the United States, much of it connecting oil from the Gulf of Mexico with refineries and distribution centers in the Northeast. Most of the pipeline system is underground, though particular sections are not: About half of the 8aa-mile Alaskan pipeline, for example, is above ground.

The pipeline system is a key component of the many interconnected and interdependent critical infrastructure systems in the United States--for example, oil provides power to generate electricity, which in turn supports the nations computing services, and so on. Thus, a terrorist attack at a key point could have a profound "cascading" effect on other infrastructures and the economy.

Solutions. The good news is that pipeline operators and their government regulators have long been attuned to safety issues, such as leaks. That was the consensus among experts at the International Pipeline Safety/Security Conference & Expo. And many of the safety protocols that have been developed over the years serve security objectives already or can be retooled to meet those needs. "This sector has very good business practices," including safety and security, says Bob Liscouski, assistant secretary for Infrastructure Protection, Department of" Homeland Security (DHS).

But the pipeline industry has also recognized post-9-11 that more needs to be done. Individual pipeline operators have been responsive to the increased threat level following the September 11 attack, says Ben Cooper, executive director of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines (AOPL).

According to the AOPL, more than 95 percent of oil pipeline operators have implemented security plans. …