The drone and cruise missile attack on the Abqaiq oil processing facility and Khureis field on Sept. 14 in Saudi Arabia had global repercussions. There is one important lesson for the North American pipeline industry.
The attack knocked out 5.7 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil production, accounting for 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total capabilities. In one day, the global price for oil increased 15 percent, jumping over $69 per barrel. However, within 10 days of the attack, Saudi Aramco restored production to pre-attack levels.
While some North American producers capitalized in the brief jump in oil prices, the real impact may be in how the oil and gas pipeline industry reacts to the potential security threat that this attack represents.
I spoke with a number of pipeline security experts for our October issue cover story, “Pipeline Protectors,” and each of them expressed how drones have improved their capabilities. Unmanned aerial technology allows them to monitor wider areas to better secure large-scale construction sites. But what if that same technology was used against them?
Jeff Leverence, president and owner of Diamond Group Security, called terrorism a “sleeping giant” when it comes to looming pipeline security threats. Firms such as Diamond Group, Leighton Services, SSI RM and others are seeing increased demand for their services, to protect jobsites from aggressive activists, theft and vandalism.
Drones can be used for good, but they could easily be made to do harm. Writing in a column dated Sept. 14 for CNBC.com, Carlos Pascual argued that the United States must join forces with China and Russia to prevent future drone terror attacks.
“The United States — and open societies with readily available drone technology and easy access to infrastructure — may have the most to fear,” wrote Pascual, who is senior vice president for global energy and international affairs at IHS Markit and served as U.S. coordinator for international energy affairs from 2011 to 2014. “On Amazon you can order drones capable of small payloads for less than $300. For $250,000, you can buy professional drones that carry payloads of 500 pounds. Even a small payload could disrupt a refinery, power transformer or dam.”
The same could be said for a pipeline, especially one that is still under construction and exposed to view. Pipeline projects cover wide areas. While it’s becoming easier to monitor people coming onto jobsites, a drone can be stealthier.
While new technology is helping security firms better manage pipeline construction sites, new technology can also help nefarious individuals conduct their dirty deeds. The pipeline industry must remain vigilant to protect itself against growing security threats.