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Home >Energy Shortages & Safety Heighten Fears

Energy Shortages & Safety Heighten Fears

18 March 2013

As Yokogawa and McAfEe join forces to tackle cyber-security issues in process control plant, the recent hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria does little to allay fears, say analysts who have long viewed the security of physical infrastructure as the energy sector’s principal Achilles Heel.

The assault, which claimed the lives of at least 37 foreign workers, is said to be the worst terrorist attack on an oil and gas installation in the industry’s 150-year history. It has prompted an urgent review of safety and security procedures, not to mention reconsideration of drilling plans.

Security of oil and gas infrastructure takes centre stage at Counter Terror Expo, which convenes again at London Olympia on 24-25 April 2013. The subject has its own dedicated zone, including a free-to-attend educational workshop. Threats within and emanating from these highly volatile regions will be discussed in depth within the context of the closely associated Global Counter Terrorism Conference.

The spread of instability to Algeria was something of a surprise, given that the protection afforded to oil and gas installations in the country is renowned. That said, it is understood that Norwegian oil company Statoil voiced its desire five years ago to build an airstrip near the In Amenas plant, to avoid the need to have expatriate staff bussed in and out – in the event the request went unheeded and the recent siege began when militants attacked one of the bus convoys.
Meanwhile, the US is in urgent need of a nationwide strategy to protect its highly vulnerable electric grid from succumbing to a cyberattack. Damage from such an attack would be many billions of dollars more than the destruction caused by Sandy last month on the East Coast, says a recent report from the National Research Council.

Terrorists who gained access to any one of a number of key facilities, either through Internet-delivered malware designed to destroy control systems, or via a saboteur on the inside, could black out large regions of the nation for weeks or months, according to M. Granger Morgan, head of the engineering and public policy department at Carnegie Mellon University.

Fear of a cyberattack on the nation’s critical infrastructure was heightened following the discovery of Stuxnet, sophisticated malware that damaged Iran's nuclear facilities in 2010. Iran has vowed to take "pre-emptive” strikes against the countries it believes are responsible (the New York Times has reported a claim that the US and Israel developed Stuxnet together).

The grid’s acute vulnerability comes from being spread across hundreds of miles and having many unguarded key facilities. In addition, federal legislation in the mid-1990s that opened the door to more competitors in the power market has stressed the nation’s bulk high-voltage system, leaving it at risk to multiple failures following an attack.

The grid is also riddled with important pieces of equipment that are decades old and lacks advanced technology for sensing and control that could limit outages.

Andy Pye Consulting editor