Related Articles
Forward article link
Share PDF with colleagues

Lessons learned

A new book, The Fundamentals of Energy Infrastructure Security: Risk Mitigation in the International Environment, examines past and present threats to the energy industry from terrorism, low-intensity conflict and war, and provides a guide to effective risk-mitigation techniques for energy companies operating in difficult security environments. Pooling information from the world's trouble spots could significantly enhance the ability of companies to make accurate threat assessments, optimise security planning and protect facilities more effectively, says Paul Hueper, the book's author

DESPITE the heightened popular interest in energy infrastructure security—influenced in part by the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001— mitigating physical security risks in the world's oil and gas provinces is a challenge that energy companies have grappled with for decades.

It is commonplace for executives, military and government officials, industry associations, think tanks and academic institutions throughout the world to discuss threats from terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, as well as ways to protect critical energy infrastructure. Increased security concerns have also led to a scramble by security-equipment manufacturers and consultants to supply technology and advice to energy companies and host governments.

The global experience

The consequences of an attack can range from minor annoyances to a company's operations to the disruption of an entire country's economy. Ensuring the safety of energy infrastructure can be a daunting task, whether it is in so-called low-risk countries in Europe or North America, or in high-risk operating environments, such as Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa or southeast Asia.

Despite the increased attention given to this subject, there is often a lack of appreciation of the extent to which attacks on energy facilities have occurred in the past. Hundreds of attacks each year occur on oil and gas pipelines and infrastructure around the world. Many energy industry observers are aware that oil pipeline attacks frequently occur in Colombia, or that ethnic disturbances cause oil production shut-ins in Nigeria, or that the Strait of Hormuz is a vulnerable choke-point for Mideast Gulf oil supplies.

But most observers, unless involved in security operations for an energy company, are less familiar with the tactics used by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in attacking the Caño Limón-Covenas pipeline or oil facilities in Putumayo, the root causes of ethnic conflict between the western Niger Delta's Ijaw, Itsekiri and Urhobo ethnic groups, or the ways in which Iran ensured survivability of its oil export capabilities after Iraqi attacks on Kharg Island and other facilities during the Iran-Iraq War.

Fewer still will have historical familiarity with the Union for the Total Independence of Angola's seizure of oilfields in the Soyo region, United Liberation Front of Assam's use of remotely controlled devices to destroy oil infrastructure in northeastern India, Karen insurgent attacks on Yadana pipeline operations in Myanmar (Burma), killings of oil company personnel in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), banditry affecting oil development in southern Chad, or Revolutionary Armed Forces and Guerilla Army of the Poor attacks on oil exploration sites in Guatemala's Peten region.

This knowledge gap means that analysis based on lessons learned cannot be applied to development of risk-mitigation strategies for companies and host governments facing security problems in other parts of the world. Knowledge garnered from gas pipeline attacks in Algeria is not conveyed to operations in Sumatra, experience with personnel security in Assam is not applied to kidnap prevention in Ecuador and analogues to community-relations strategies in PNG are not used, where applicable, in oil provinces such as Nigeria.

A historical view

The traditional role of oil as a factor in war is well understood. In World War II, as in other conflicts, the securing or destruction of oil fields and infrastructure were embedded in strategic objectives: Hitler's desire to take oil resources in the Caucasus, the Japanese seizure of oilfields in Borneo and Sumatra, and the Allied bombings of Romania's Ploiesti refinery complex are cases in point. As a supply element during military operations, petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) are integral to success on the battlefield.

The Soviet experience in Afghanistan underscores the critical nature of oil supplies in enabling the sustainability of occupation forces in a hostile environment. During peak military operations in the 1980s, up to 2,000 tonnes a day of POL were required, some of which had to be transported through the 3,300-metre high Salang Tunnel in slow-moving convoys of more than 800 vehicles—an ideal target for Mujaheedin attacks.

Oil has also been used as a weapon. During the First Burmese War, in 1825, for example, local Burmese set bamboo rafts loaded with oil on fire and floated them towards opposing British ships in Rangoon harbour—a precursor perhaps of Saddam Hussein's use of oil-well fires and oil-fire trenches during the Gulf War and in 2003.

In more recent times, and especially since the start of the Cold War, the security and free flow of oil from the Mideast Gulf has remained of paramount concern to Western nations. A recently declassified, top-secret UK intelligence memorandum, entitled Middle East—Possible Use of Force by the United States, underscores the seriousness with which the security of the Mideast Gulf's oil resources are viewed.

Taking control

In the December 1973 memo, the chief of the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee, Percy Cradock, wrote to then-prime minister, Edward Heath, that 'we believe the American preference would be for a rapid operation conducted by themselves' to take control of oilfields in the Mideast Gulf. He added that: 'The [initial] operation could be fairly straightforward ... on the order of two brigades, one for the Saudi operation, one for Kuwait and possibly a third for Abu Dhabi.' Assessment of Saudi defence capability was minimal. Only a 'lightly armed national-guard battalion at Dharan' was mentioned.

Energy infrastructure security concerns during the Cold War also existed outside of the Gulf. After the start of oil production in the North Sea, significant attention has been paid by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) to protecting the area's offshore oil infrastructure. And at the height of the Cold War, numerous examples exist of Soviet intelligence vessels encroaching on the 500-metre safety zone established around oil rigs in the UK sector of the North Sea. Cases in point include a June 1974 incident when a Soviet trawler approached an Amoco oil rig and another in mid-1975, when Soviet naval vessels observed at close range BP's sinking of the Graythorpe One platform.

The superpower rivalry was also in full swing during this time and certain intelligence operations were targeted at exploiting weaknesses in energy-infrastructure security. Beginning in the late 1950s, the Soviet Union sent 'sabotage and intelligence groups' to the US and its Nato allies to conduct reconnaissance and preparations for various levels of sabotage against energy infrastructure.

According to information made public, from former KGB (committee for state security) officer Vasili Mitrokhin's secret archive, the KGB spent years, if not decades, documenting the vulnerabilities and preparing for the disruption of US, Canadian and Western European electricity infrastructure, refineries, POL depots, and oil and natural gas pipeline networks.

Key targets included hydro-electric power plants in the northwestern US, the Wilhemshaven-Wesseling oil pipeline—planned for sabotage at the Lippe River crossing—and Canada's gas pipeline network. In preparation for sabotage actions, clandestine booby-trapped arms caches—containing mines, specialised explosive devices for use on power pylon legs, and time-delay detonators—were buried near key energy facilities.

The US also actively targeted Soviet energy infrastructure during this time. In a case recently disclosed by a former US Air Force secretary, Thomas Reed, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted an operation to disrupt Soviet natural gas supplies and, concomitantly, that country's hard-currency export revenues and economic stability.

In this covert operation, a Soviet KGB informant forwarded a requirements list for spare parts to the CIA, which, in turn, was able to insert flawed software in delivered equipment that, after a time delay, caused compressors to increase throughput pressures in the Soviet Union's gas-export pipeline system beyond operational limits. The result was a rupture and massive explosion in western Siberia in mid-1982.

A diverse threat environment

The role of energy as a factor in war and in the Cold War superpower rivalry is interesting in its own right, but the examination of energy infrastructure security since the 1960s can provide direct analogues to the threat environments faced by companies in many of today's oil and gas provinces. Understanding of the background of these historical security incidents is important when evaluating threats and implementing a risk-mitigation strategy. Civil wars in Nigeria, Angola, Sudan, Mozambique, Zaire and Congo offer numerous cases of the sabotage and destruction of energy infrastructure in low-intensity conflict environments.

In Latin America, leftist guerilla movements in Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Peru have long targeted energy infrastructure and expatriate personnel for ideological and financial reasons. In North Africa and the Middle East, tribal groups seeking monetary gain and government services have mounted dozens of attacks on oil and gas pipelines.

In southeast Asia, the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People's Army has been adept at sabotaging electricity infrastructure on Luzon, Mindanao and other islands, since the 1980s. Insurgencies and low-intensity conflict in countries such as Indonesia, Myanmar and Assam have greatly increased the risks to energy company personnel.

Incidents such as the 1986 kidnapping of a geophysical survey team in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts also provide useful data points and comparisons for companies operating in the world's oil and gas frontiers. Landowner issues and community relations have long been the Achilles heel of oil companies operating in PNG.

Potential for attacks

Since 2001, the potential for terrorist attacks against energy infrastructure has become a primary concern in many Western countries. In the US, fears for the safety of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the security of liquefied natural gas import terminals and the possibility of terrorism against domestic refineries run high among law-enforcement authorities. In Europe, concerns about terrorism have also increased, but they are not new. Irish Republican Army attacks on electricity infrastructure in northern Ireland in the 1980s and oil pipeline bombings by suspected Scottish nationalists in the 1970s are evidence of this long-standing threat.

Real and perceived threats to North Sea oil platforms have occurred since the 1970s. One such case was a hoax El Fatah threat against Phillips gas-production platforms in the southern sector of the UK North Sea in August 1975. More recently, in the jittery months following September 2001, the Norwegian air force responded to an incident in which two boats—later identified as Scottish trawlers—approached the Sleipner B platform without authorisation. The threat from Islamic-based terrorist groups—al-Qaeda and other radical movements, such as Abu Sayyaf, Algeria's Armed Islamic Group and Salafist Group for Call and Combat—increases as they seek opportunities to attack energy company operations, assets and personnel, based on their Western affiliation.

Broader concerns for the security of the world's energy infrastructure now exist. Shortly after the al-Qaeda attack on the Limburg tanker, offshore Yemen in October 2002, Saudi Arabian authorities announced that they had broken up a plot by the same terrorist organisation to attack the Ras Tanura oil terminal and refinery, as well as pipelines that supply the facility. After the suspected Jemaah Islamiya bombing in Bali, Indonesia, fears were raised about the security of oil and gas infrastructure in southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and the Philippines. The April 2004 violence in southern Thailand now raises questions about the security of energy infrastructure in the Gulf of Thailand.

Risk mitigation

Physical threats to energy infrastructure can come in a variety of forms: lone or organised vandals, terrorists, irregular forces such as insurgent movements, specialised commando units from a regular military and, in the event of full-scale war, the regular military forces of an opposing nation. Oil, gas and electricity infrastructure has a wide range of vulnerabilities.

Crude oil and natural gas trunk and export pipelines are highly vulnerable because they can traverse long distances through uninhabited areas, making security-monitoring difficult. In the highly populated Niger Delta, the reverse is true—the presence of flow and trunk lines provides for an increased number of sabotage targets. Leak detection can be difficult in older pipelines, especially those not equipped with a supervisory control and data acquisition system or advanced metering capabilities.

Even if they are, irregularities and fluctuations in pipeline operations may impair monitoring capabilities. Traditional methods of leak detection, such as through pressure loss and volumetric calculations, can lead to significant delays in incident response, as well as difficulty in locating precisely where a rupture has occurred. In addition, small leaks—less than 1/500 of a percent in some systems—may remain undetected under traditional monitoring systems.

During the past several years, however, new technologies (including fibre optics) have been introduced that can improve greatly pipeline and energy-facility security efforts. As with many new technologies, however, the cost of implementing such measures for an entire project may be prohibitive. Specific issues, such as sensor sensitivity, may impede real-world operational effectiveness.

Disruption to operations

Despite the vulnerability and large number of annual attacks on the world's oil and gas pipelines, damage to numerous others kinds of infrastructure can result in markedly greater repair costs and disruption to operations. Damage to or loss of pumps and compressors, electronic monitoring and control systems (such as through physical incidents or cyber-terrorism), and key electricity infrastructure components, such as transformers, can be debilitating to energy production and transmission operations. A shortlist of other vulnerable infrastructure includes damage to well casings, manifolds, certain units of gas-separation and -processing infrastructure, refineries and electricity systems.

Table 1: Selected historical risk areas for energy infrastructure, 1980-2004


Source of threat

Main targets

Historical risk area




North coastal area, Laghouat, El Oued, Ouargla, Illizi


Unita, Flec-FAC, Flec-R


Cabinda, Zaire province (Soyo), Central Highlands


Farf, Fant, Frolinat, banditry


Logone (Doba, Moundou), Tibesti, northern Lake Chad


Farc, ELN, paramilitaries, criminal groups


Arauca, Norte de Santander, Antioquia, Meta, Putumayo


AFDL, MLC, various militias


Moanda, Matadi, Inga Plateau, Lake Albert region


Farc, Finae, various indigenous groups


Central and northern Oriente, borders with Colombia and Peru


Separatists, Chechen rebels, criminal groups


Abkhazia, Adjaria, South Ossetia, Pankisi, Armenian border


FAR, EGP, civil defence patrol


Southwestern and northern Peten, Western Highlands, Izabal


ULFA, Bodo militants, criminal groups


Assam, Gujarat, EP theft throughout country


GAM, OPM, JI, radical Islamic groups


Sumatra (Aceh, Riau), Kalimantan, Sulawesi, West Papua




Tete province, northern and western areas of country


Karen, Mon rebels


Southeast border area (south of Three Pagodas Pass)


Militants and criminals


Western Delta, Warri, Ogoniland, southeast swamps


Tribal groups, radical Islamic groups


Baluchistan, Sindh, NWFP, Karachi


Sendero Luminoso, MRTA


Ecuador border, Ayacucho, Amazon region, Lima


NPA, Abu Sayyaf, MILF, MNLF, JI,


Mindanao, Jolo, Basilan, Luzon, Samar, Panay, Negros


Chechen separatists, organised crime


Caucasus (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ossetia), Tatarstan, Samara


SPLA, SPLM, NDA, Beja Congress, SLM


Equatoria, Upper Nile, Kordofan, Eastern, Darfur provinces


Tribal groups, radical Islamic groups


Marib and Shabwah regions; border area with Saudi Arabia


OG: oil and/or gas infrastructure. OI: offshore platforms. PL: oil and/or gas pipelines. EP: electric power. P: personnel


Asset protection

Developing an effective risk-mitigation strategy is a multi-fold process that includes threat assessment, cost-benefit analysis, ensuring incident-response capability, personnel security, co-ordination with the host government and local communities, and implementation of an effective environmental response plan. Due to the complexity of the international environment, familiarity with the global nature of threats to energy infrastructure is critical to the threat-assessment process and to evaluating risk-mitigation alternatives.

A threat assessment will be the start of a continuing and lengthy security-evaluation process—rarely can the security environment in a country be expected to remain unchanged during a 30-year project lifetime. Present-day and anticipated threats are likely to apply to specific aspects of projects, especially in the case of a long-distance pipeline, where certain portions of the route may be more risk-prone. An understanding of the motivations, goals and modus operandi of potentially hostile elements is essential from the perspectives of both companies and host governments.

An accurate threat assessment is a pre-requisite of conducting a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account not only the likelihood and type of an attack, but also the cost of using possible alternative security measures. Cost-benefit analysis of security measures may need to be done only for selected facilities, such as for infrared detection measures for securing perimeters at individual pump stations.

In ideal circumstances, security planning is included in the front-end engineering and design stages of a project, with engineers and security professionals working in tandem on relevant aspects of a project. Decisions over whether to go with costly high-tech fibre-optic security systems, which kinds of traditional hardening measures to use—such as steel-reinforced concrete pipeline shields—and long-term security personnel requirements are critical in both system design and estimating operational expenses.

The Fundamentals of Energy Infrastructure Security: Risk Mitigation in the International Environment will be published by Petroleum Economist in September 2004. Contact for more information and to reserve a copy. Advertising and sponsorship opportunities are still available.

Colombia: Guerilla attacks on oil infrastructure

COLOMBIA'S decades-long civil war costs the country's energy sector hundreds of millions of dollars each year in lost export revenues and infrastructure repair costs. The revolutionary armed forces of Colombia (Farc) and national liberation army (ELN) guerilla movements typically conduct hundreds of attacks a year on oil company infrastructure and personnel, mainly in Arauca, Casanare and Putumayo provinces.

In Arauca, the 778-km Caño Limón-Covenas pipeline has been subjected to more than 1,000 attacks since its start-up in 1986. A record amount of 170 bombings occurred in 2001. In the mid-1990s, the modus operandi of Farc and ELN operations targeting this pipeline evolved beyond simple hit-and-run attacks.

The evolution of attack patterns includes multiple simultaneous pipeline bombings, staggered bombings, either on the same day or just after prior ruptures have been repaired, the laying of anti-personnel mines around ruptured line pipe—a technique mastered by Renamo guerillas against electricity infrastructure in Mozambique—and ambushes of Colombian military incident-response teams.

Multiple attacks have been a particular problem. During visual line inspections in October 1999, 16 pre-dug holes for bombs were discovered on the Caño Limón-Covenas pipeline at kilometres 42, 43, 342, 360, 428, and 429. It is unknown whether these holes were intended as part of a plan to inflict massive damage on the pipeline, or to disrupt pipeline operations for a sustained period of time. Analysis of where the holes were dug leads to interesting conclusions about the guerilla's knowledge of pipeline system operation.

The increasing boldness of rebel attacks on the pipeline is best exemplified by incidents involving Colombian military helicopters in July and December 1997. In the former incident, a Mi-17 carrying a 28-member incident response team was downed by small arms fire as it attempted to land near kilometre 69 along the Caño Limón-Covenas route. Only four soldiers survived.

With almost $100m in US assistance and on-the-ground support by US Special Forces teams, the frequency of guerilla attacks declined significantly in 2002. Recently, increased surveillance of the Caño Limón-Covenas pipeline has also been beneficial. Specially dedicated Sky Master aircraft are equipped with electro-optical surveillance gear that uses infrared detection equipment to pinpoint guerilla forces, as well as possible ruptures and leaks along the pipeline route. In 2003, only 34 bombings that caused ruptures and dents were recorded.

Also in this section
Letter from Canada: Alberta waits for a boom that may not come
17 September 2020
The Edmonton administration assumes that there will be another oil bull cycle. It may be wrong
Fukushima still looms over energy decisions
11 September 2020
Japan ignores strategic low-carbon energy options and risks muddling through by adding more coal
IEA’s Birol ‘optimistic’ amid ‘huge challenges’
10 September 2020
Governments need to take a leading role in supporting technological development and tackling the emissions of legacy power and industrial facilities, he says