Pipeline Protectors: Physical Security a Growing Necessity for Jobsites

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Keeping people safe on oil and gas pipeline construction sites has long been a top priority for contractors and operators. These concerns have led to constant improvements to equipment and jobsite practices. However, another aspect of pipeline safety has been on the rise over the past decade — physical security.

The increase in anti-pipeline activism and the threat of theft and vandalism have led to a growing need for jobsite security measures, which include everything from video surveillance, equipment tracking and aerial monitoring, to armed personnel roaming the right of way.

The events surrounding the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota in 2016-2017 was a major catalyst for the pipeline security sector, according to Gary Washburn, operations manager for Leighton Services Inc., a security firm based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that caters to the pipeline industry in the United States.

Remote monitoring technology

The large-scale, organized protests surrounding DAPL and the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe provided important lessons for the pipeline industry and how to manage security on such expansive construction sites.

“Everything we do is all open source intelligence gathering,” Washburn says. “We’re watching opposition groups if they’re against any projects we’re working on, and we plan accordingly.”

Washburn and Leighton Services founder and president Kevin Mayberry are fulltime law enforcement, and so are most of the people the company hires for projects. The company typically employs off-duty or retired law enforcement and retired military veterans.

“We always advocate for the protest groups,” Washburn says. “It’s their constitutional right to assemble peaceably, so I’ve never been against that. We’ve gone as far as working with the client to make sure we provide a safe place for them to gather, even providing water, tents and shade. We’re hospitable. We just agree to disagree.”

Allowing protestors a safe space to gather leads to more amicable relationships on both sides, Washburn says, adding, “We still have an open rapport and relationship with the people in the Standing Rock Tribe in North Dakota.”

Despite efforts to be hospitable, security problems do still occur.

“Unfortunately, we have had incidents where people have tried to burn equipment and sabotage machines, or they’ll climb on a machine and try to lock themselves onto it,” Washburn says.

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Because of what happened with DAPL, the pipeline industry and security firms now understand the importance of meeting with Native American groups and the local community, says Jeff Leverence, president and owner of Diamond Group Security, based in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Leverence had a 25-year background in private security before starting his own security firm 10 years ago to serve the pipeline industry.

“Now, we’re meeting with tribal leaders and with locals to get to know each other,” Leverence says. “We want to avoid an adversarial relationship.”

The only way for a security firm to plan for what kind of activist presence a project may attract, Leverence says, is by maintaining relationships with the people in the area.

“Those relationships are so valuable,” Leverence says. “We make sure they are included in all conversations, so everyone knows what might occur. There’s no way we could come up with that kind of risk assessment on our own.”

Hiring the right people for a project is another important part of building and maintaining relationships, Leverence adds. Diamond Group tends to focus on hiring military veterans.

“When it comes to political disputes,” Leverence says, “we hire people trained in what I like to call ‘verbal jujitsu,’ people who know how to de-escalate a situation, so we don’t wind up with what we had in North Dakota a few years ago.”

Protestors, theft and vandalism are also big threats globally, says Jules Rawles, commercial director for SSI RM, a UK-based security and risk management firm that recently signed a five-year alliance agreement with the International Pipe Line and Offshore Contractors Association (IPLOCA). Rawles agrees that building relationships and focusing on de-escalation tactics are key to success. For companies working internationally, though, another big risk relates to outside organizations operating in new environments.

“There is the perception that a pipeline company will be seen as alien,” Rawles says. “Local integration is very important. What we try to do is establish a footprint where they’re going to work, so that risk is minimized. We start by employing local security guards and making sure any local permits with the police are in order, so that we are set up and ready to go when the client arrives.”

Satellite tracking equipment and remote cameras

Satellite tracking equipment and remote cameras help security firms keep expensive equipment and materials safe from theft and vandalism.

Risks to Pipeline Security

Pipeline security concerns can come from a variety of sources. The three biggest risks, as mentioned, are activism, vandalism and theft.

“The biggest risk is you have a small percentage of activists who think the best course of action is to do physical damage to equipment and projects,” Washburn says. “We recently had three incidents in one of the states we work in, where someone drilled holes in the pipe at night. The problem with that is they’re sabotaging the pipeline themselves. They want to protest environmental risks, but then they cause environmental issues themselves. It’s counterproductive. The vast majority of activists are peaceful and just want their voice to be heard. It’s only a few who want to cause harm and damage millions of dollars’ worth of equipment.”

Leverence adds that another major threat is related to the illegal drug trade. That includes running into drug manufacturing facilities in rural areas, as well as drug abuse on the jobsite.

“Meth labs are typically out in the country,” Leverence says. “We want to make sure that our clients don’t stumble across any drug manufacturing sites. There’s a false sense of security out in the country. Most project sites are out in the middle of nowhere, but those areas are the most dangerous because of the drug trade. It’s a real concern that we run into quite a bit.”

Terrorism, Leverence adds, is the biggest growing threat to pipeline security today.

“Although it has been quiet on the home front and we’re keeping terrorist threats at the lowest level possible, we’re vulnerable with our oil and gas infrastructure,” Leverence says. “That’s the sleeping giant, I believe, and we have to stay vigilant so we don’t get caught with another 9/11. The biggest way a terrorist group could bring us to our knees is to disrupt the economy, and that’s by disrupting our oil and gas infrastructure.”

Methods of Protection

The majority of pipeline security work is for new construction projects, though Washburn, Leverence and Rawles admit there are occasional needs related to existing pipelines, whether for maintenance work or other situations.

While Leverence says “probably 95 percent” of maintaining security on a pipeline project is having boots on the ground, advances in technology have enhanced protection methods over the years. Drones, improved camera technology, satellite tracking and other tools for remote monitoring are allowing security firms to capture a wider view of the project site.

“Drones have become a big part of the security business now,” Leverence says. “We have FAA-certified licensed drone pilots to fly drones along the right of way to monitor the jobsite. We offer a menu of different types of security available, and the customer can dictate what’s most important to them, because every company has different priorities.”

The frequency of drone monitoring is based on the client’s preference, Leverence adds. Increased aerial patrols can be added if a contractor has a concern about a specific area.

“Some of our customers have had issues with sabotage, with people coming out on the fields at night, sabotaging equipment, putting sand and dirt in engines,” Leverence adds. “We’ll put drones out there and dispatch personnel to monitor the area.”

Security personnel have to be mobile, Washburn says, as large-scale pipeline projects progress from one spread to the next.

“The project obviously moves, so we have to move with the progress of the work,” Washburn says. “We allocate resources daily, so that wherever a piece of equipment goes, there is some measure of physical security to safeguard it while it’s not in use.”

New technology allows the security firms to be more mobile.

“We can see if a machine is ever started or working against normal hours, and then our personnel can go check that out to make sure it’s not related to a theft or vandalism,” Washburn says. “Sometimes, vandals will use the equipment to tear up the jobsite or tear up other equipment on site. We’ve also expanded to using solar-powered remote camera systems that are motion-activated and use thermal and infra-red imaging. Technology is ever evolving and changing to better meet the needs of the projects.”

Aside from officers on site and using drones to monitor the right of way, another thing that Leverence says helps secure a jobsite is building security fencing.

Meeting Security Demands

While different projects require different security approaches, hiring practices are integral to maintaining security on a project site. Leighton Services, Diamond Group and SSI RM subcontract their staffing with a focus on hiring experienced people with a background in law enforcement, military or other security-related professions. And whenever possible, all three companies prefer hiring local people.

“We’ll typically have a dedicated officer for each work area, when significant resources and equipment are allocated to one area,” Washburn says. “There are times we may have 600 people on payroll, and sometimes we may have 1,000.”

Leighton Services has a few company-owned vehicles, mostly using UTVs for traversing the right of
way because the average vehicle is not equipped for such terrain. Determining where personnel is stationed and what technology is used is based on the customers’ needs.

“It’s all 100 percent client-driven,” Washburn says. “They tell us where they want people and where they want covered. We make recommendations and go from there. It’s all what the client wants. We don’t try to sell them above and beyond what they want or what we think is necessary.”

In addition to technology and armed personnel, Leighton Services also has access to canines with explosive detecting training, as well as bomb experts. The company also offers executive protection.

“Physical security has become a necessary evil,” Washburn says. “For a lot of projects, security is a significant amount of money that was not budgeted for at the beginning. We have to be fiscally responsible for our clients to provide the services they need without being overcharged.”

While oil and gas pipelines are a new area for SSI RM, the company comes to the industry with an extensive background in cable laying for offshore and onshore projects. The company’s expertise is with projects that cross international boundaries.

“It is all about prevention,” Rawles says. “We design a security plan in the first instance that allows for there not to be a security issue. The first threat, not to sound paranoid, is the insider threat. We talk about making their employees more aware to make sure that insider threat is mitigated.”

One of the biggest benefits that SSI RM provides clients is what Rawles calls “country briefs,” which are two- to four-page documents that provide an overview for companies to better understand the working environments for each country.

“The country briefs let our clients know what kind of mobilization efforts are involved, with everything from travel conditions, acquiring visas, what kind of travel risks there are, terrorism threats and medical risks, like what inoculations are needed,” Rawles says. “It’s helpful to have as a reference, to know what kind of instability a country might have and give our clients a metric to better understand and compare the environment the pipeline company will be working in.”

Market Trends

The need for pipeline security has grown exponentially over the past 10 years, Washburn says. Security has become something that pipeline contractors must consider in their budgets when planning a project.

“It’s a major cost for them that they didn’t have to factor in before,” Washburn says. “If you told a pipeliner several years ago that they would have to factor in millions of dollars’ worth of security back then, they would have thought you were crazy.”

The need for pipeline security will only continue to grow, Leverence says, noting the continued growth of the pipeline industry.

“With the continued expansion of pipelines,” Leverence says, “we’re seeing more and more opportunity in the market as all these developments fuel the need for more security.”

Advancing technology continues to provide new and better ways for security firms to keep clients safe, Washburn says. However, technology doesn’t solve everything.

“Technology is always driving everything we do,” Washburn says. “We are using satellite tracking on equipment to get locations and detect startup after hours. Remote camera systems are being used more and more to protect areas. I see technology continuing to keep increasing our capabilities on projects. But there’s also a fine balance between technology and manpower. One thing that technology does not replace is manpower. You may have an alarm or alert in an area, but you still have to have the manpower to respond to check it out.”

Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at bkramer@benjaminmedia.com.

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