US Oil Complex Vulnerable to Attack

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK, NOV. 29, 2007 – In the September HSToday I wrote the one-page story, “The Case of Cushing,” that was part of our special report, “Petro Jihad,” that examined oil and gas production and distribution infrastructure security throughout North America.

But “The Case of Cushing” report did not adequately convey the potentially catastrophic impact a terrorist attack on the little known facility at Cushing, Oklahoma would have on the global oil economy, or just how insecure this vital installation seems to be. And it is, arguably, the most important oil infrastructure in North America given the impact its destruction would have.

But emphasis on its security was found wanting. Even former CIA Director James Woolsey, an advisor to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, admitted the facility isn’t sufficiently hardened against attack. He described it as “a soft target.” Authorities say it shouldn’t be!

That isn’t reassuring given the complex’s importance. The effect inventories of crude stored at the facility can have on crude pricing is already on a hair trigger.

In early October, speculators, concerned about the dip in inventories at Cushing (currently, inventories are at the lowest since October, 2005), drove the price of a barrel of oil up to a then record $83. Conversely, when Cushing’s massive tank farms are filled, crude oil prices tend to plummet. What happens at Cushing has a marked impact on the global oil economy. A terrorist attack on the complex would have a profound impact on North America, and the ripples from it would spread throughout the world.

An incident Thursday that could have had a direct effect on an important crude supply line to Cushing temporarily caused the price of a barrel of oil to spike a whopping $4. A pipeline exploded at Enbridge Energy Partners’ Lakehead pipeline system in northern Minnesota that carries crude from Saskatchewan to the Chicago area, killing two workers. Enbridge’s Lakehead conduits where the explosion occurred carries crude for storage at Cushing through its eventual connection to the Spearhead pipeline near Chicago.

Had the explosion interrupted the transport of crude to Cushing, it would have been far more serious news for the oil market. The interruption that did occur was seriousness enough to cause the Department of Energy to say Thursday it is prepared to make oil supplies from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve available to refineries in the Midwest to help offset the disruption in Canadian oil imports caused by the explosion at Enbridge’s Minnesota pipeline site.

The first Western Canadian crude – which the U.S. increasingly has come to rely on – was delivered through Enbridge’s Spearhead Pipeline to Cushing in March, 2006. The 650-mile pipeline historically operated in south-to-north service, but Enbridge bought the pipeline and reversed its flow to provide Canadian crude oil producers and shippers with access to markets in the Mid-Continent and southern United States. The pipeline has capacity, with additional power-up, of up to 190,000 barrels per day; a longer term shorter pipeline to connect Lakehead to Spearhead could add to that, with a first phase providing another 100,000 barrels per day.

The oil market is so volatile that the tiniest granule of bad news can have a huge effect on pricing. In late May, for instance, an erroneous report of a refinery fire in Oklahoma posted on a Tulsa TV station’s website caused U.S. crude prices to rise 40 cents.

"All it takes is a screw-up on a website to move the market. It just goes to show how tense this market is," a Houston-based oil trader told Reuters.

U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman said in August that near record high crude oil prices have already put the U.S. economy in the "danger zone," and that the world’s producers must boost supply to prevent shortages.

In February, 2006, oil prices shot up $2 on hearing the news that two cars exploded at the gates of the world’s biggest oil processing plant – Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility – when security forces opened fire on suicide bombers trying to storm the complex.

As far back as August 1979, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had warned that “pipelines … are highly vulnerable to disruptions caused by human error, sabotage, or nature,” and that “damage to facilities on just a few pipeline systems could greatly reduce domestic shipments, causing an energy shortage exceeding that of the 1973 Arab oil embargo – an event that led to extreme gas shortages, waiting lines at gas stations, draconian energy conservation decrees and a national 55-mile per-hour speed limit that took decades to reverse.

“Despite the fact that only 28 percent of American oil was imported during the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the supply cut’s effect on the American economy was profound. Oil prices quadrupled in a matter of weeks, unemployment doubled, and the national product declined six percent,” explained Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

“Today, with over half of American oil imported, if a chunk of global oil production is disabled by an attack on a major oil installation or chokepoint, the consequences will likely be worse,” whether it’s an attack on a facility in Oklahoma or in Saudi Arabia, Luft said, who noted that “every facility is a potential target.”

And as Luft pointed out, attacks on oil infrastructure “is a growing phenomenon, and that’s not a good sign.”

“We’re only a headline of significance away from $100 oil,” John Kilduff, an analyst in the New York office of futures broker Man Financial Inc., recently said. “The unrelenting pressure of increased demand has left the market a coiled spring.” New disruptions of Nigerian or Iraqi supplies, or any military strike against Iran, might trigger the rise, Kilduff said.

After returning from a fact finding trip to Iraq in August, Rep. Jon Porter said he was told gasoline prices could escalate to $9 a gallon if the United States withdraws troops from Iraq prematurely and thereby potentially allowing Al Qaeda and other terrorist forces to disrupt Iraqi oil production, which they’ve already been doing regularly.

Indeed. Terrorists have consistently tried to impact the global oil economy by attacking infrastructure in Iraq. From June 12, 2003 to April 30 of this year, there were 421 terrorist attacks on oil and gas refineries, pipelines and other distribution infrastructure in Iraq which robbed the country of untold billions.

In one case, terrorists spent about $2,000 to blow up an oil pipeline in Southeast Iraq. It cost the government $500 million in lost revenue, or, put another way, it was a return on investment of 25 million percent for the terrorists.

On May 7, Al Qaeda-linked Iraqis were captured by members of Iraq’s 3rd Army division in connection with the discovery of 150 kilograms of TNT strategically placed beneath a stretch of an oil pipeline in the al-Kisk area that supplies crude oil to Turkey.

But it’s not just Iraq Al Qaeda has in its crosshairs. Saudi Arabia also is a target. And a successful attack there could be devastating.

Saudi Arabia said Wednesday it had arrested 208 suspected members of Al Qaeda belonging to several cells that planned an "imminent attack" on an oil installation in that country.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced it is establishing a special 35,000 member rapid reaction force to protect its oil production installations.

In Feb. 2006, members of a Saudi Al Qaeda cell were thwarted from attacking the Abqaiq oil facility. The attack allegedly was ordered by bin Laden himself, according to Saudi Al Qaeda members familiar with the attack who were captured by the kingdom’s security forces. The incident sent nervous jitters throughout the world’s oil economy.

Former Middle East CIA field officer Robert Baer described the facility as "the most spectacular target in the Saudi oil system.”

A month later, Saudi security forces discovered explosive-laden vehicles near the Abqaiq oil facility at a house occupied by a Saudi Arabian Oil Company employee. The cars bore the company’s logo.

Saudi Arabia soon arrested more than 170 suspected Al Qaeda-linked terrorists, some of whom were training as pilots to carry out suicide attacks on oil facilities in the country, the Interior Ministry said.

The ministry, in a statement read on state television, said police seized weapons and more than U.S.$5.33 million in cash from what Al Arabiya television said were seven armed militant cells.

Perhaps taking a queue from Al Qaeda, according to intelligence authorities, recent attacks on Mexican oil and gas pipelines by the shadowy Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, a newly re-formed terror group, were intended “to hit [Mexico’s] domestic economy.”

Among the EPR’s attacks were the bombings of three pipelines and a switching station in the states of Queretaro and Guanajuato. The explosions severed natural gas pipelines and a crude oil pipeline that links storage facilities in the Gulf of Mexico port of Poza Rica to a refinery in Salamanca, Guanajuato, reducing fuel supplies in the region.

In response, Mexican President Felipe Calderon dispatched a new 5,000-strong elite military unit to guard strategic sites, including oil refineries and hydroelectric dams.

Clearly, all of these attacks were, had they been successful, intended to send the oil economy into a tailspin. Indeed. Luft said in April 2004 that had terrorists succeeded in destroying the Basra, Iraq oil terminal, “the damage would have echoed far beyond Iraq.”

Luft explained that, at the time, “with global oil consumption at 80 million barrels a day and spare production capacity gradually eroding, the oil market has little wiggle room. Mere weeks after OPEC’s million bpd production cut sent oil prices to a historical high, the removal of almost two million bpd of Iraqi crude from the oil market would veritably guarantee an oil crisis.”

Continuing, Luft noted that “in the summer of 2002, a group of Saudis was arrested for plotting to sabotage Ras Tanura, the world¹s largest offshore oil loading facility, through which a tenth of global oil supply flows daily. A successful attack on Ras Tanura could have taken up to half of Saudi oil off the market for a significant period of time and with it most of the world’s spare capacity, sending oil prices through the ceiling.

"Such an attack would be more economically damaging than a dirty nuclear bomb set off in midtown Manhattan or across from the White House in Lafayette Square," observed Robert Baer. This "would be enough to bring the world’s oil-addicted economies to their knees, America’s along with them."

Clearly, the consequences of a major disruption in the global flow of oil potentially could be catastrophic. In August, when gasoline at a station near Orlando International Airport was priced at $4.50 a gallon, some outraged motorists scrawled warning messages and curse words on gas pumps.

(An excellent 2001 paper that examines several worse case scenarios from global oil disruption is, “The War on Terrorism, the World Oil Market and the U.S. Economy,” by George L. Perry, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, Brookings Institute)

Disrupting the U.S. oil economy clearly is a key goal of Al Qaeda, which sees oil as "the provision line and the feeding to the artery of the life of the crusader nation" – America.

In 2004, Bin Laden issued a decree to his jihadi followers to attack oil installations in an effort to stop the flow of oil to the U.S. and to bankrupt its economy by driving up world oil prices, a threat that has caused leading counterterror officials to conclude that it’s very likely Al Qaeda, its allies or groups it has inspired, will try to attack targets inside the U.S. Maps of major petroleum facilities in the U.S. have been found in the possession of captured Al Qaeda members and raided safe houses.

Detailed data on oil pipelines like compression stations and valves had been made public by the Pipeline Safety Act of 2000, which was passed after a 1999 pipeline leak explosion that killed three people. But after 9/11 the federal government began clamping down on the specificity of information available to the public, and for good reason.

Both the Department of Transportation and Transportation Security Administration restricted National Pipeline Mapping System information that was previously a matter of public record. Today, the public only has access to pipeline operator contact information within a specified geographic area and only vague location maps.

The removal of such information though isn’t likely to deter jihadists. Saudi’s Al Qaeda cell has reiterated bin Laden’s call to attack U.S. oil facilities around the world. The terror group listed Canada, Venezuela and Mexico as U.S. oil suppliers who also should be attacked. Targets include oilfields, pipelines, loading platforms and carriers.

The Saudi arm of Al Qaeda posted the threat in Sawt Al Jihad (“Voice of Jihad”), the terrorist group’s online magazine. The publication highlighted the group’s foiled attack on the Abqaiq oil facility as a lessons-learned guide for terrorists in planning their next attack on a refinery or some other oil production facility. The magazine’s central theme is the targeting of oil refineries and infrastructure as part of the terrorist group’s struggle to "choke the U.S. economy.”

The 12-page presentation of targets for jihadi operations – said to be a response to the messages of bin Laden and Al Qaeda – was posted to a password-protected Al Qaeda-affiliated forum. Oil pipelines, refineries and pumping/boosting stations were its focus. Within the U.S., specific targets include the Trans Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS). But it also contained links, maps and figures of oil production and reserves in Alaska, Texas, Louisiana, California and Oklahoma.

"We should strike petroleum interests in all areas which supply the United States, and not only in the Middle East, because the target is to stop its imports or decrease it by all means," the terrorist group declared.

Since 9/11, federal warnings about Al Qaeda have specifically mentioned pipelines as potential terror targets in the U.S. In January 2006, federal authorities acknowledged the discovery of a detailed posting on a website purportedly linked to Al Qaeda that encouraged attacks on U.S. pipelines, especially TAPS, using weapons or hidden explosives. In February 2006, the FBI arrested a U.S. citizen for trying to conspire with Al Qaeda to attack TAPS and a major natural gas pipeline in the eastern United States.

Earlier this year, federal and New York law enforcement busted a plot to attack the fuel depot that supplies JFK Airport and a major northeast pipeline distribution artery.

U.S. counterterror authorities have every reason to be fearful that Al Qaeda has plans to attack oil production sites and facilities throughout the homeland. Intelligence officials say Al Qaeda-tied members have already conducted surveillance similar to that performed by suspects in the New York plot in preparation to attack refineries, pipelines and other oil infrastructure in the U.S.

An FBI report notes that “… plans exist [for Al Qaeda] to continue attacks against the global petroleum sector. Al Qaeda plans to weaken the petroleum industry by conducting additional sea-based attacks against large oil tankers … such attacks may be part of more extensive operations against port facilities and other energy-related targets, including oil facilities and nuclear power plants.”

At the federal level, the Pipeline Security Division of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Transportation Sector Network Management, and DoT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration’s Office of Pipeline Safety are responsible for ensuring security preparedness and oversight of the nation’s pipeline systems. DHS’s Pipeline Security Division emphasizes “developing security programs and conducting analysis to maintain pipeline and domain awareness with particular focus on critical systems and infrastructure.”

DHS’s Pipeline Security Division receives regular intelligence from the department’s intelligence arm pertaining to possible and actual threats to pipeline infrastructure.

Luft said that just like facilities in the Middle East – such as in Saudi Arabia and the UAE – where there are vulnerable targets, there also are “soft” targets of opportunity for Islamist jihadists intent on disrupting the global oil economy in the U.S., like the complex in Oklahoma. Indeed, if terrorists wanted to directly strike at a petrol economy target in the US, the facility at Cushing would be the ideal choice, authorities told

For this reason, decided to investigate the security and consequences of an attack on the complex at Cushing.

The first indication of security that we found at the complex are the large red signs that ominously warn interlopers “vehicles and occupants [are] subject to stop and search.”

“Restricted Access. Local Traffic Only,” the signs say.

The portentous placards are posted at the entrances to all the roads in the two counties that run through the crude infrastructure that surrounds Cushing, a town of about 9,000 residents that sprang to life in 1912 when the oil discovered beneath it was at the time the world’s largest known repository of “black gold.”

With half-a-billion barrels of oil eventually pumped out of it by 1979, the “Cushing Field” still ranks as one of the largest crude deposits ever found. In its heyday, there were more than 700 wells pumping oil from beneath the surface to as many as 23 nearby refineries.

The oil is long gone, but the infrastructure that’s been built there for storing and distributing crude has made the site an important target of terrorists. Al Qaeda maps and documents have been found with a crosshair on the complex.

Tucked out of sight from major roads among corn and wheat fields, herds of prime beef, infestations of prairie dogs, packs of wild coyotes and the occasional bobcat, Cushing is a place that, if terrorists were able to light the fuse to, say, a small tactical nuclear bomb, the damage it would inflict would be so grave that it would cripple the oil economy not just throughout America, but throughout the entire North American continent and beyond! At least that’s what a secret simulation a few years ago concluded.

Such an attack would be nothing short of catastrophic, authorities familiar with the exercise told

The Cushing mega-complex doesn’t have an official name. Un-officially, it’s known as the crude oil “pipeline crossroads of the world,” which is what you find written on above-ground pipelines entering town.

The complex is the largest crude pipeline gathering facility on the continent, one of the world’s major oil terminals, and, the largest crude transportation hub in the world. More than 70 percent of the petroleum that’s shipped in the United States flows through the pipes that intersect here. The black goo stored here serves as the feed stock for a good portion of the nation’s refineries.

But more importantly, the Cushing complex is the designated delivery point for NYMEX West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil futures contracts. NYMEX is the world’s largest energy marketplace and historically has been the benchmark for monitoring oil price movements, hedging, and establishing physical market spot and contract prices for nearly all other U.S. crude oils – as well as some foreign crude that’s exported to the United States.

WTI-rated crude arrives for storage here from pipelines originating in several southern states along with other domestic crude oils and imported crude offloaded from tankers on the Gulf Coast and, increasingly, shale oil from Canada.

The importance of this site to the global oil economy can’t be understated. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says the “efficient functioning of the pipeline and oil storage facilities leading into” and out of this facility “is critical to the fluid operation of both the trading activities … and the trading of crude oil futures contracts on the NYMEX. The restriction of pipeline or storage capacity can affect the deliverable supply of crude oil … and consequently affect both WTI crude oil cash prices and NYMEX futures prices.”

The private, market-bound concentration of crude at this one location is so colossal that FTC intervention into the merger of Atlantic Richfield and BP Amoco several years ago emphasized that the union would have concentrated control of over 43 percent of the site’s storage capacity, 49 percent of its pipeline delivery capacity and 95 percent of the trading services at the complex in one company. And that, the FTC said, would have created an unacceptable “threat of manipulation” that could “cause prices to rise and, because WTI crude oil is a benchmark crude oil, have ripple effects throughout the oil industry.”

Atlantic Richfield had to sell oil pipelines, connections and storage tanks at the site to eliminate obstacles to its $30 billion buyout by BP Amoco.

British Petroleum moves roughly 200,000 barrels of crude oil a day through its facility at Cushing and is expanding capacity. BP’s nearby continental pipeline control operations center and crude storage is the second largest liquids pipeline company in the U.S., moving more than 1 billion barrel-miles of oil, refined products, natural gas liquids, carbon dioxide and chemicals daily throughout North America. The pipeline control center remotely operates more than 11,000 miles of liquid pipelines in 30 states.

Cushing has the capacity to move more than 2 million gallons in and out of its pipelines every day. More than20 million barrels flow each year through its pipes. Its massive tank farms stretch for as far as the eye can see and can hold more than 30 million barrels, or more than 10 percent of the nation’s typical crude reserves at any given time. With the exception of the federal government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), which as of June 1 contained about 700 million barrels dispersed among five sites along the Gulf Coast, there is no single greater repository of crude anywhere else on the continent.

And the capacity of the “oil crossroads of the world” continues to grow with new distribution pipelines and storage batteries coming online, many of which can hold an estimated 500,000 or more barrels. The capacity of the site is expected to eventually swell to 45 to 50 million barrels. The amount of crude on deposit here could reach a quarter or more of the nation’s total reserves.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in new pipeline capital investments have been made in recent years, and nearly half-a-billion dollars has been spent to build new oil storage and distribution infrastructure. For example, last week, TEPPCO Partners, LP announced it has brought on line three new crude oil storage tanks representing a 900,000 barrel, or nearly 50 percent, increase in its storage capacity. The expansion, which is supported by long-term dedicated lease agreements, brings total capacity at TEPPCO’s facility to 2.8 million barrels.

The TransCanada Keystone Pipeline recently completed a 291 mile extension to the site in order to increase its capacity from 435,000 barrels per day to nearly 600,000 barrels a day.

And despite the fact that inventories are down at Cushing as of this writing which is largely attributable to oil futures speculation that drove the price up to more than $80 a barrel, Cushing’s storage capacity still isn’t enough, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said earlier this year. The IEA said even larger storage facilities and more pipelines probably need to be built. And for good reason.

Earlier this year the site’s storage tanks were filled to the brim because of the inability of the nation’s refining system to operate at maximum capacity. Refinery shutdowns and decreased refining due to decades old refineries increasingly in need of maintenance and repair (no new refinery has been built in the U.S. in nearly half-a-century and refining capacity has been cut in half over the last 30 years) and lack of sufficient pipeline capacity to move excess oil from this landlocked hub to refineries further outside the region to meet demand caused NYMEX crude to back up in the tank farms, depressing WTI pricing.

It’s largely because of this potentially recurring problem that the Dubai Mercantile Exchange (DME) for West Asia “sour” crude futures contracts was established earlier this year as an alternative to the bellwether NYMEX contracts for WTI and North Sea crudes. But with the NYMEX hub’s recent storage and distribution capacity expansion projects coming on line and Brent crude production diminishing, no one is ready to say NYMEX’s busy energy market will cease to matter. Indeed, DME is a joint venture of Tatweer, a unit of the UAE’s investment vehicle, Dubai Holding, and NYMEX.

To get an idea of the ramification of terrorists destroying the Cushing facility, one need only look to the fictional attack “in the opening pages of [ex-CIA Usama bin Laden hunter] Robert Baer’s book, “Sleeping With the Devil,” explained former CIA Director James Woolsey in testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in November, 2005. Woolsey said Baer’s make-believe attack abruptly took “six million barrels per day off the market fora year or more, sending petroleum prices sharply upward to well over $100 a barrel and severely damaging much of the world’s economy.”

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 11 petroleum refineries were shut down, representing 2.5 million barrels a day or 15 percent of U.S. refining capacity, and 1.4 million barrels per day of crude production was shut-in, representing 27 percent of U.S. crude production.

The U.S. managed to overcome this shortfall when a handful of refineries were soon brought back on line; the government taping the SPR and allowing existing refineries to put off maintenance and repairs in order to run at maximum capacity; the EPA granting waivers to first responders in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to use high-sulfur off-road diesel – waivers that eventually had to be extended to all 50 states; DHS waiving restrictions on shipments of crude oil and refined petroleum products by foreign flagged vessels to U.S. ports; and the IEA allowing additional crude and refined products to be shipped to the U.S.

Katrina showed America is capable of responding to outages caused by downed refineries, but what would happen if the continent’s primary storage and distribution nexus – and the very place were crude pricing is set – was obliterated? That’s a different story, according to authorities.

“If [Cushing] isn’t a priority target, then I don’t know what would be,” said an Oklahoma homeland security department official.

“I have to ask myself, ‘why not [this site],’” was told by Terry Brannon, Cushing Deputy Chief of Police whose department has partial jurisdiction over the complex and understands full well it’s importance. “It’s a weight I feel on my shoulders every day,” he said as he described the nature of the threats he’s regularly made aware of by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The Cushing police recently was awarded a sizable grant from DHS that is being used to buy equipment principally to aid in its role of helping police the site. Brannon’s department is considered to be the first responding law enforcement agency in the event of a security breach because of its proximity to the site – it literally backs up to some town residents’ backyards. The Sheriffs’ departments of the two counties sharing law enforcement jurisdiction over the complex both turned down the opportunity for the grants that the Town of Cushing accepted, an action that noticeably tweaked the Oklahoma Department of Homeland Security, according to a department official.

In 2004, the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG) – which facilitates the Bureau’s rapid response to, and management of, crisis incidents – conducted “Exercise Critical Crossroads.” This was the first ever full-scale field drill to simulate coordinated terrorist attacks on the complex. The exercise was an enormous undertaking that took nine grueling hours and involved more than 100 agencies and many different companies.

While the simulated impact was disruptive and caused crude prices to rise, it wasn’t catastrophic. But, then, it was a conventional assault, which wouldn’t likely result in an absolute catastrophe.

“You’d have to do a hell of a job on” the site to cause serious damage, said Dennis J. O’Brien, director of Energy Economics and Policy at the Sarkeys Energy Center at the University of Oklahoma. “What you’d have to do is parachute a brigade in and do it systematically.”

O’Brien believes a disastrous attack is a far-fetched scenario. Even if a well-manned, well-equipped group of terrorists engineered a major conventional attack with high-explosives, the pipeline infrastructure would remain intact and could be quickly repaired, he said.

"Unless you hit a major pumping facility or a major junction, pipelines can be fixed easily," O’Brien said.

Officials of companies with facilities at the site tended to agree, poo-pooing the notion that terrorists could inflict serious damage. Officials seemed quick to say that an attack on the complex would be inconsequential; that there are redundant systems and quick pipeline shutdown capabilities.

Luft, however, said because the “quantities [of crude] stored [at Cushing] are quite significant,” even a massive conventional attack could spell “serious trouble because the explosions could be compounded.”

FBI Special Agent John E. Lewis, later Deputy Assistant Director of the Bureau’s Counterterrorism Division and now Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Phoenix Field Office who oversaw the 2004 exercise, said “what we have [here] is an important national asset. The pipelines contain tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil and there could be a major catastrophe if someone were to hit them just right.”

And hitting them “just right” is what prompted a later classified “tabletop” exercise to examine the impact of the detonation and release of an electromagnetic pulse of a small yield nuclear explosion at the heart of the site, which, aerial imagery shows, is a heavily wooded unpopulated area well-trained terrorists could easily get to.

Described to by a source familiar with the simulation, the domino effect that rippled through the world’s oil economy from the nuclear blast that leveled the complex’s facilities, gouging a crater into the earth that destroyed miles of pipeline and fried the circuitry of a nearby installation that controls major pipelines across the country, was nothing short of cataclysmic. There was an unimaginable disruption in shipments, transportation, storage and production worldwide.

And, authorities said, there could be other dynamic impacts from such an attack that remain unforeseen. They pointed to the findings of the Infrastructure Protection Subgroup of the government’s Technical Support Working Group (TSWG) which earlier noted that only by understanding the dynamics of vital, complex critical infrastructures can secure operating methodologies and strategies be developed to prevent or mitigate widespread failures due to cascading and interactive network effects.

“Hidden interdependencies are likely causes for failure because complex linkages and infrastructure dependencies are poorly documented or understood,” TSWG said.

Commenting on the endgame of the tabletop nuking of the pipeline crossroads of the world, the source who brought it to’s attention said “it was a disaster we’d better just make sure we don’t let happen.”

But to do that you need security. Really good security. And this complex doesn’t have it, as far as could tell, although the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security’s last annual report (2004) that was made public stated the office was working on a “Buffer Zone Protection Plan (BZPP) for critical infrastructure sites,” as well as hardening of critical infrastructure sites that are potential targets of terrorists.

In 2004, DHS tasked each state with creating a BZPP for critical infrastructure sites. The BZPP initiative is designed to compliment and supplement protective effortsalready in place at specific locations throughout a state. DHS states that the BZPP program will define a buffer zone outside the security perimeter of a critical infrastructure/key asset site; Identify specific threats and vulnerabilities associated with the buffer zone; analyze and categorize the level of risk associated with each vulnerability; recommend corrective measures within a buffer zone that will reduce the risk of a terrorist attack.

According to the Oklahoma DHS’s annual report, millions have been “earmarked to create programs or protect sites to reduce Oklahoma’s vulnerability to terrorist attack.” It’s unclear, though, just what has been done to harden the Cushing complex. According to local law enforcement, they will be the first line of defense of the site, and they admit they are underfunded and inadequately equipped to deal with even a well-resourced conventional attack.

Requests for interviews with Oklahoma DHS officials were never responded to.

Meanwhile, the Safety Alliance of Cushing – a group comprised of representatives from the FBI, DHS, pipeline companies, local police and fire departments and other local and state safety personnel – works closely with the FBI and DHS and has been cited for its security training and preparation efforts. made several visits to the sprawling complex to see for ourselves what the site’s post-9/11 security is like.

Cumulatively, each of the trips involved hours of driving back and forth along the miles of roads that criss-cross this gargantuan complex, the air of which is thick with the scent of freshly pumped crude. We stopped, gawked, took pictures and otherwise acted as conspicuously suspicious and out of place as we could. Yet, no one stopped us to search our vehicle or persons, even in the dead of night. With the exception of passing one police officer from the town that shares partial jurisdiction over the complex who simply gave us a friendly wave, we encountered no county sheriffs, no private security … we in fact observed no obvious security anywhere. No one seemed to pay us any attention.

That was disconcerting, because we’d expected to find a security environment much different than what we discovered. For a location where one would expect to find Area-51 equivalent security, what we found – or better yet, the lack of what we found – was alarming.

The paucity of defenses allayed to confront motivated terrorists tends to make a mockery of all the hoopla two administrations, eight Congresses and numerous blue-ribbon panels have bellowed about the importance of protecting the nation’s most critical infrastructures. More so given all the terrorists who are adept at using the Web and other easily accessible official and non-official resources to learn about this site and Al Qaeda’s avowed intent to attack U.S. and Western petroleum infrastructure.

Yet this enormously important cog in the gears of North America’s oil supply, delivery and pricing infrastructure would seem, to anyone who physically explored the complex, to be a proverbial setting duck.

Although DHS has classified the site as a critical national security infrastructure, the facilities at the site are not required to have the sort of security the federal government requires of nuclear power plant operators.

We found a number of gates, some remote, that not only were barely held together by chain and padlocks that could easily be cut with bolt-cutters or busted through with a vehicle, but were not secured at all. And the mostly chain-link fencing around most of the sites could easily be cut. We observed little indication that thereare regular security patrols of the perimeters of these locations.

Four years earlier, though, in April, 2003, officials of companies with facilities at the site had assured the AP that more security guards had been hired, that there were increased police patrols, all gates were securely locked and roads into the complex had been restricted.

Clearly, we found, the county roads that run through the complex are not restricted.

Oil industry representatives had further told the AP that the vast spaces between tanks at the farms make them a poor target. Roy Maye, an Enbridge Energy official and former director of the Safety Alliance of Cushing – a group composed of energy companies with local operations, state, local and federal law enforcement and first responders – told the Daily Oklahoman in Sept., 2005 that “the tanks have dikes around them, and they’re spread out so if you blow one up, it won’t blow up the next one. It’s not like you can just set an oil field on fire. There’s not just one central site, and we’re not going to have the domino effect."

But aerial imagery that wasn’t publicly available back then reveals at least four-dozen tanks that are in fact very close together.

GAO had made clear nearly 30 years ago “that the petroleum industry is not adequately emphasizing the physical security of some key pipeline systems … And neither industry nor the federal government has plans for dealing with the critical impact of petroleum shortages should key pipelines become seriously damaged and disruptions occur.”

Subsequent GAO audits reiterated the agency’s findings three decades ago.

Brannon and his counterparts from the sheriffs’ offices’ in the two adjacent counties and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol would be the immediate response in the event of a full-blown, lead-slinging shoot-out with terrorists conventionally attacking the site. While these dedicated but undermanned local law enforcement officers might be lucky enough to place enough rounds on target to impede a conventional attack, they’d be of little consequence against an unnoticed conventional stealth attack or mushroom cloud for which they had no forewarning.

Based on observations, interviews with government and industry security officials, examination of aerial imagery and discussions with counterterrorists, the site is a critical infrastructure that is vulnerable to attack and disruption that today receives less than adequate security consideration by industry and government.

(Visited 22 times, 1 visits today)

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

Leave a Reply