| HOUSTON/NEW YORK
HOUSTON/NEW YORK Oct 12 All it took was a pair
of bolt cutters and the elbow grease of a few climate activists
to carry out an audacious act of sabotage on North America's
massive oil and gas pipeline system.
For an industry increasingly reliant on gadgets such as
digital sensors, infrared cameras and drones to monitor security
and check for leaks, the sabotage illustrated how vulnerable
pipelines are to low-tech attacks.
On Tuesday, climate activists broke through fences and cut
locks and chains simultaneously in several states and simply
turned the pipelines off.
All they had to do was twist shut giant valves on five
cross-border pipelines that together can send 2.8 million
barrels a day of crude to the United States from Canada - equal
to about 15 percent of daily U.S. consumption.
The activists did no damage to the pipelines, which
operating companies shut down as a precaution for checks before
The United States is the world's largest energy market, and
the infrastructure to drill, refine, store and deliver that
energy to consumers is connected by millions of miles of
pipeline that are impossible to protect entirely from attack.
"You're not manning these things on a permanent basis. It's
not viable," said Stewart Dewar, a project manager at Senstar,
an Ottawa-based company that authored a 2012 white paper on
pipeline security. "It's too expensive."
There are more than 200,000 miles (322,000 km) of oil lines
and many times that of natural gas lines across the United
States. Thousands of rural and often remote pumping and valve
stations dot the country.
The cost of posting armed guards at valve stations, usually
found every 20 miles along the underground pipelines, would be
prohibitive, said Dewar.
For companies, there are few options to police the parts of
their pipeline networks that sit above ground, such as the valve
The stations are usually protected by nothing more than the
same flimsy chain link fence and padlocks elementary schools use
to protect their playgrounds.
The same vulnerabilities are present worldwide. In Nigeria
and conflict zones such as Iraq, pipelines have been targeted by
militants. In Mexico, thieves target the fuel arteries to siphon
But until Tuesday, environmental activists had never carried
out a simultaneous, coordinated attack of this magnitude.
Tuesday's action, supported by the Vermont-based Climate
Disobedience Action Fund, was held to draw attention to climate
change and to support opponents of the proposed Dakota Access
Pipeline, which critics say could rupture and sour drinking
water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.
Several pipeline operators and safety experts said shutting
off valves was extremely dangerous and that activists
underestimated the risks.
Pipelines can be heavily pressurized depending on length and
altitude variation, and shutting off a valve could cause
ruptures that are "catastrophic" for the environment, Paul
Tullis of Tullis Engineering Consultants said.
"It's like a freight train," he said of the momentum with
which the oil moves. "If these people are hydraulic engineers,
they might be able to do this safely."
Activists often do not fully know what they are doing, even
if they think they do, Tullis said.
Protesters said they spent months studying how to safely
shut the valves. The ability for them to access the proprietary
information necessary to shut a line safely was questioned by
Either way, pipeline specialists said it was lucky there
were no leaks on Tuesday. Once the valves are shut, pressure can
quickly build up inside pipelines that operate under as much as
1,000 pounds (450 kg) per square inch.
Protesters were taking a chance that a weak spot in a line
would not explode, and that employees in operations hubs would
spring into action after hearing alarms.
"On the wrong pipeline, in the wrong place (actions like
this) could kill people. This is hazardous hot liquid. It's not
something to be terrified of, but it must be respected," said
Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc, a pipeline
SECURITY RAMP-UP AFTER 9/11
After the tampering, owners Enbridge Inc,
TransCanada Corp, Spectra Energy and Kinder
Morgan shut their lines as a precaution.
They did not immediately respond to questions about their
broader security precautions, though some of them emphasized
having multiple safety systems in place.
The general vulnerability of U.S. infrastructure - from
bridges to power plants and ports - became more apparent after
the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Since then, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration,
part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has asked
pipeline companies to carry out a "security vulnerability
assessment" for their assets and to conduct risk assessments
that include the "likelihood of a success of an attack," and to
take steps to mitigate those risks.
A review published by the DHS in 2015 identified physical
and cyber security as a risk to energy infrastructure systems,
including the threat of multiple, coordinated attacks and
electromagnetic pulse events, but focused primarily on threats
to the electrical grid.
Security experts said they have tried to strike a balance
between protecting facilities, ensuring freedom of movement and
keeping costs in check.
The Association of Oil Pipe Lines, an industry group, said
it recognized disagreements exist about energy policy, but that
the protest went too far.
Previous valve closures have caused spills, including one of
nearly 4,000 barrels of oil, the group said.
"We don't want anyone to get hurt or cause a release into
the environment," said Andrew Black, the group's president.
(Reporting by Liz Hampton in Houston and Ethan Lou in New York;
Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar and Jessica
Resnick-Ault; Writing by Terry Wade; Editing by Simon Webb and