Are Canada's Offshore Platforms at Risk?

Canadians have been forced to learn a great deal about National Security in the four years since 9/11. However, it is only since the London bombings in 2005, and the 2006 wartime deaths of a Canadian diplomat and Canadian soldiers by the al Qaeda-affiliated Taliban in Afghanistan, that we have collectively (and reluctantly) ventured into the macabre risk-management equation of security against global militant Jihadist terrorism.

As we study the security landscape of western nations, it is apparent that energy is a vital resource that drives the ­eco­nomic engine of modern society, with oil and gas heading the list of key sources. Petroleum-based energy is so important that the United States, the world’s thirstiest energy consumer, is altering legislation this year to allow drilling for oil and ­natural gas in areas of the outer continental shelf that have been protected until now.

The vulnerability of oil production fields, port storage facilities, and pipelines, as well as offshore drilling platforms, can be viewed as a weakness in our inter-connected critical energy infrastructure systems that allow the free flow of petroleum to energy-hungry nations.

Let us examine the potential threat to Canadian offshore platforms and the security approach taken in Canada with a view to assessing the adequacy of present security measures concerning offshore platforms.

Global Jihadist Terrorism – Threat to Energy Infrastructure
In late 2004, al-Qaeda openly proclaimed a strategy of harming Western economies by disrupting oil supplies and causing prices to soar. Intelligence expert, Martin Rudner, Director, Centre Intelligence & Security Studies at Carleton University, in his upcoming article Protecting North America’s Energy Infrastructure Against Terrorism, focuses our attention on the interruption of the world’s crude oil supply as a main piece of a seven-stage, twenty-year grand strategy of the modern jihadist movement. If the terrorist “movement” follows this grand strategy, all energy infrastructure in western countries, particularly oil energy infrastructure, will be at risk. As we have already seen in Iraq, where the first stage of aggressive terrorist insurgency has taken place against the oil industry, this assault includes attacks on oil pipelines, trunk lines, refineries, oil wells, and offshore oil platforms.

It is not just Iraq that is feeling the threat to energy infrastructure. A recent maritime threat assessment from the Australian government stated that al-Qaeda and its associated groups, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia, have a capacity to conduct significant terrorist attacks, including against maritime interests.

Alexey Muraviev, an Australian security expert, has concluded that terrorists have the operational capabilities to mount an attack at sea. He notes that these capabilities could be directed against a variety of targets including coastal and offshore infrastructure – specifically offshore oil platforms.

These findings, and other assessments by Australian intelligence agencies, convinced the Australian government, in 2005, to invest significant resources that are focused on the security of offshore oil and gas platforms. This series of linked initiatives resulted in an integrated approach. Energy is deemed so important to Australian economic well-being, and the threat is perceived as direct enough to provoke major national expenditures to mitigate risk against the threat of terrorist attacks on these facilities.

In a more global perspective, it should be noted that President Vladimir Putin will make energy security the theme for the G-8 Meeting in St. Petersburg. After concerns over Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, experts are starting to focus on Nigeria, a country that pumps over 2 million barrels of oil a day and has recently experienced rebel militant attacks against offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Guinea. As Harlan Ullman of the Washington Times states, “with a population of about 130 million, half of whom are Muslim, and a tragic history of civil war, inter-communal violence and endemic corruption, it would be foolish to think that jihadists somewhere do not have an eye on Nigeria.”

The case can be made that the lonely offshore platform is perhaps one of the easiest infrastructure targets of all. There are thousands of oil platforms around the world; the U.S. alone operates over 4000 along its coastlines. While they form a technical network, from a security perspective these lone targets are simultaneously vulnerable to attack from above and below. Controlled access to the platforms has been often found lax or non-existent. Thus, a well-placed explosive on a supply boat or ocean tug which carries supplies to the oil rig, or a guided missile from any sort of passing vessel or aircraft could instantly produce a huge fire, loss of life, technical destruction, environmental ­hazard, and economic losses that could cause market upheaval.

Harbours providing port storage facilities are also at risk of being targeted for attacks.

Gaps in protection against threats to offshore energy infrastructure represent important vulnerabilities in a nation’s security fabric. In the Critical Energy Infrastructure Protection Vulnerability Matrix that Dr. Rudner presents, the indicators of threat and vulnerability emphasize the relatively high level of terrorism risk accorded to offshore platforms and other key energy infrastructure.

In this matrix, the criticality of an attack on offshore platforms is assessed as High. This means that the results of such an attack would significantly impact a country’s well-being. Moreover, as Dr. Rudner points out, the criticality of energy infrastructure extends far beyond purely economic concerns. “The consequential effects of a terror attack on North American energy infrastructure would likely reverberate on public confidence in the ability of government to protect core national interests, and on neighbouring countries’ willingness to depend on partners for national security generally, and for energy sourcing in particular.”

In the context of criticality for Canada, the worst case scenario would be the destabilization of the sustainability of North American energy integration. Therefore, high risk due to ongoing vulnerability could have the effect of convincing other friendly governments, especially the United States, to tighten controls on cross-border movements of goods such as oil, and to seek more dependable sources elsewhere. Inaction, in the case of improve­ments to security to critical energy infrastructure – including offshore oil platforms – is an irresponsible gamble indeed.

Offshore Energy Industry
Canada’s total oil production was 3.1 million barrels per day in 2004, making it the seventh-largest oil producer in the world. Canada sends over 99% of its crude oil exports, and some 56% of its natural gas production to the United States. It is important to note that American and Canadian natural gas and oil grids have become closely interconnected, with Canadian natural gas supplying an increasing share of the total U.S. demand.

From the economic perspective, Newfoundland has undergone tremendous growth in its provincial economy due to developments in the offshore oil industry. There are considerable, proven offshore oil reserves that are primarily found in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin, east of St John’s Harbour. The three oilfields in this basin are the Hibernia field, the Terra Nova field, and the recently opened White Rose field. The coast of British Columbia also contains significant reserves; however, due to a federal ban on offshore oil activities, there has been no production to date.

Natural gas deposits can also be found on the Atlantic Coast. The Scotian Basin, off the coast of Nova Scotia, for example, is the center of production, with the Sable Island Offshore Energy Project at its heart. Offshore oil operators in Newfoundland predict they could also produce sizable natural gas volumes from their reserves. Moreover, the Mackenzie Delta boasts a sizeable arctic frontier natural gas deposit. It is predicted that offshore platforms will blossom there within the next ten years.

Offshore Platform Security
Though the oil and natural gas industry is thriving and represents a significant percentage of the nation’s GDP, legislation for operating offshore platforms has not been updated since the late 1980’s – at either the federal or provincial levels. Felix Kwamena of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) concedes that the focus of the federal legislation and the accords with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were written for a different era, focusing primarily on safety and the environment – with no mention of security from the terrorist threat that now exists. Furthermore, neither the National Security Policy nor the existing Position Paper on Critical Infrastructure Protection Strategy mention offshore platforms as a particular concern.

There is, of course, the recently-­promulgated International Shipping and Port Security (ISPS) Code that brings a standard security and risk-management formula to the maritime communities around the globe. Also, there has been some good work from DND in the standing up of the Maritime Section of Joint Task Force Two (JTF2), which falls under the command of the new Special Opera­tions Forces Com­mand (CANSOFCOM). Part of this highly-trained special forces group works on the water, practicing anti-terrorist tactics on merchant ships, port facilities, and offshore platforms. While there has been some coordination between authorities over employment of this capability, there are challenges of distance, pre-placement of equipment, and frequency of training in the various venues of their mandate.

While the National Security Policy and the Position Paper on Critical Infrastructure Protection Strategy mention energy security as a concern, jurisdiction over the energy industry is a shared responsibility between different levels of government and between the public and private sectors. Security, law enforcement, defence, administration, regulatory authority, and emergency preparedness are similarly spread across various departments and agencies. As a result, not unlike other infrastructure challenges, the road to change is a difficult one that will take top-down direction to coordinate (and much practice to prove effective).

It should be noted, however, that NRCan has been collaborating with other federal departments, the provinces, and private industry to update legislation concerning offshore platforms. The problem here is that, try as they may, NRCan cannot move the file forward to Cabinet. The linkages of this proposed legislation to several existing Acts, including the Public Safety Act and the Marine Transportation Act, and to current Public Health initiatives, have caused delays and distanced the issue from the priority flow of items that compete for Cabinet review. Unless the situational awareness of federal decision-makers is raised, the legislation to secure offshore platforms could languish for several more years.

As Dr. Rudner states, “offshore production platforms may be vulnerable to assault from sea or air…. Alas, gaps in protection represent vulnerabilities to determined terrorists.” Canada’s oil and natural gas platforms are isolated and have no security forces on-site. Further­more, military or law enforcement assistance is far-away and not regularly exercised. Most importantly, legislation and policy at both federal and provincial levels is out of date and does not lay complete ground rules for the protection of offshore platforms which should include such measures as: the prevention and mitigation of terrorist attacks; crew training for reaction to attacks or natural emergencies; a rapid-reaction, on-site response capability against attacks; and the organization for recovery from an attack in the energy network across the relevant coast.

This issue calls out for debate. Other like-minded countries with offshore platforms have created separate national strategies based on the protection and security of these precious assets. Even if threat assessments reveal that the actual threat to Canadian offshore platforms is low, it would seem to be in the national interest to have the debate and take steps to knowingly insure this important and growing portion of our economy from a possible future threat.

Finally, a follow-on document to the “security framework” provided in the National Security Policy could be undertaken to give Canada its first true national security strategy. Perhaps to be entitled the “Canadian National Security Strategy” (to differentiate it from the American National Security Strategy), this document would embrace a strategic approach across the pillars of society and would highlight, among other things, critical energy infrastructure protection as a significant concern.

Peter Avis is Director General, Requirements on the new Strategic Joint Staff at the Department of National Defence.
© FrontLine Security 2006