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U.S. Energy Pipelines Increasingly Vulnerable

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

The future of energy production and provision is one of great promise. However, at present, the United States faces, as does the world, far more innovation in technology and communication than in energy sources readily available to the average consumer. Naturally, this brings an integration of new technological capabilities to the ways in which the standing energy industries are able to manage and distribute their goods.

Recalling national controversies such as the Keystone Pipeline protests, this publicity brought U.S. energy pipelines to the explicit attention of the nation and the world. According to the New York Times, there were nearly 2.5 million miles of oil, gas, and chemical pipelines in the U.S. by the second quarter of 2018(1).

This sounds like an impressive statistic, but with every mile comes compounding safety and security risks. Notably, the method of employing pipelines for product distribution is a more risk-exposed approach than some of the competition, such as nuclear energy, due to other sources’ abilities to have their primary energy source originating at the site of production. Pipeline operation companies are increasingly able to leverage technology to implement remote monitoring for more immediate and accurate operation of substations and equipment at strategic locations along the infrastructure system. However, the unfortunate reality of this adaptation is that increasing technological efficiency may be opening the door to vulnerability on the cyber-security front.

This potentially unfortunate situation stands to impact millions of Americans, and the reality of a system compromise became more evident in April of 2018 when “[a] cyberattack on a shared data network forced four of the nation’s natural-gas pipeline operators to temporarily shut down computer communications with their customers”.

While this did not result in a loss of product distribution, it gives evidence to the reality of a cyber threat to the industry in the relatively immediate present. For a reference to the magnitude of this predicament, 2017 statistics show that roughly 15.4% of the U.S.’s primary energy consumption was derived from natural gas(3) and around 75% of the U.S.’s petroleum consumption was consumed by non-industrial transportation, residential use, and electrical power production (approximately 15 million barrels of oil per day). A compromise to the U.S. energy grid in an area of this magnitude would create millions in revenue losses and potentially wide-spread power outages.

Regarding the management of this predicament, there is some tension over the supervision and curation of the security of the U.S. pipeline infrastructure. Security is currently handled by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with oversight from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As evidenced by the recent government shutdown and its effects on the TSA, some are calling for the management of this infrastructure to be managed elsewhere. Other critics of the TSA are dissuaded of their abilities as evidenced by a lack of proactivity on the cyber-security front.

Opinions are varying as to who stands to be the most capable institution to solve this looming issue. Any way that one chooses to see these matters, the U.S. power grid stands to become more exposed than ever. A compromise in the system, preventable by proactive precautionary action, brings moderate to severe consequences to other industries and consumers nationally.


© De Angelis & Associates 2019


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