The global COVID-19 pandemic has affected all facets of life, and oil production and security is no exception. Oil supply has outpaced demand, leading to larger than normal needs for oil storage on offshore facilities and tankers, and consequently what many deem new vulnerable soft targets for terrorism. However, the offshore oil industry is not only an environmental security threat but has been a counter-terror challenge for years. These facilities are not only difficult to protect, but an attack could have tremendous environmental consequences if it caused an oil spill.
Most questions on the safety of offshore drilling have revolved around the environmental security impact, recalling the devastation of the 2010 British Petroleum (BP) owned Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico, which suffered an incident that spilled approximately 795 million liters of oil. The environmental devastation was catastrophic, having “harmed or killed about 82,000 birds of 102 species; about 6,165 sea turtles; as many as 25,900 marine mammals; and a vast (but unknown) number of fish.” Financially, BP spent $65 billion on fines, clean up and legal settlements.
Not that the environmental risk of offshore oil isn’t warranted, but all this damage was unintended, so what level of destruction could be seen if an oil platform had suffered an intentional attack? While nation-states might not see the benefit in causing an environmental disaster which would potentially affect them, international terrorist groups would not only have no hesitation going after such a target, but many have a long history of doing just that.
In international conflict, a country’s energy sector can make for an attractive objective. National oil infrastructure has been a frequent target in violent conflicts, most recently by the Yemeni based Houthis, funded largely by Iran and designated a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, though not by the US. During the summer of 2019, the group claimed responsibility for an unmanned aerial vehicle attack on a Saudi-Aramco owned oil field. Though this caused no disruption to the facility’s production, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih described the attack as “terrorist sabotage [that] follows a series of actions, including attacks against oil tankers, and are aimed at disrupting international oil supplies.”
None of these specific attacks resulted in oil spills, but due to the volatility of the oil market in international affairs, even a failed attack can have negative economic effects.
While the Houthi attacks were focused on Saudi oil assets, the Islamic State terrorist organization is believed to be behind multiple attacks on Iraqi oil wells and oil rigs. Recently this has involved attacks on two oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, and a rocket attack directed at an ExxonMobil facility in Basra in June 2019. None of these specific attacks resulted in oil spills, but due to the volatility of the oil market in international affairs, even a failed attack can have negative economic effects.
This can be seen in the Columbian context, where the Revolutionary Forces of Columbia (FARC) terror group has frequently targeted oil pipelines. According to the Global Terrorism Database, there have been 243 of these attacks that, besides causing “oil spills and significant environmental damage,” influenced oil importers against purchasing in Columbia due to the disruptions.
Offshore oil has been a frequent victim of terrorist attacks as well. In fact, the Terrorism Research Initiative found that between 1975 and 2010, violent non-state actors were responsible for 60 attacks on offshore oil interests. Research has shown these types of attacks have continued; in May 2016 the Niger Delta Avengers launched an armed assault-style attack on a Chevron-owned platform off the coast of Nigeria. In Saudi Arabia, there was an unmanned boat filled with explosives stopped from reaching platforms in the Jizan Province, and an attempted assault on an offshore oil field in the Arabian Gulf in April 2017, and June 2017 respectively. Most recently, in February 2018, the Lebanese based terrorist group Hezbollah issued threats to target Israeli offshore oil operations along the Israel-Lebanon border.
If an attack on American platforms were to occur, how could it happen? The maritime component of offshore drilling platforms makes a boat-based attack one of the most likely either with an assault, suicide bomber, or even submersible vehicle such as those used by Latin American drug cartels to smuggle drugs.
History shows that the air domain is equally possible, with drones or suicide style attacks from planes, but perhaps the newest vulnerability is in the cyber domain. In 2014, criminal hackers disabled an offshore oil rig when they managed to tilt it, and another offshore facility was found to contain such a significant amount of malware that it took over two weeks to be functional once again.
Any one of these types of attacks, successful or not, could feasibly hurt American offshore oil interests in the Gulf of Mexico, be it in human lives, catastrophic environmental impact, or disruptions to energy markets. Further, a terrorist attack on an offshore platform would result in substantial economic costs with regard to facility and equipment repairs, production and export delays, theft, and potential influence on global oil prices.
The COVID-19 pandemic has saddled all industries with hardships, and offshore oil has not been immune. In pre-pandemic days there were reportedly an average of 20 oil drilling rigs active in the Gulf of Mexico, but in May 2020 this declined by almost half due to COVID-19 related supply cuts. While the energy industry may take a temporary hit, many countries have been storing their oil and begun turning to other sources of energy, namely offshore wind, to lessen their offshore oil needs. Oil being continually stored offshore may have gotten people thinking about the possibility of a terrorist attack, but this possibility has always been there.
An attack is probably less of a risk on American coastal assets than abroad, but homeland security risk is often about assessing unlikely threats, and these offshore oil platforms are an important part of US critical infrastructure, so their vulnerability warrants proper security measures. The question must be asked if the benefit of maintaining these offshore facilities outweighs the consequences of a terrorist attack. For the sake of national security and environmental security, the US should let offshore oil end by removing these targets.
Justin H. Leopold-Cohen (@jleopoldcohen) is an Environmental Security Analyst with the Center for Development and Strategy (@thinkcds) a non-partisan 501(c)(3) think tank devoted to the research and discussion of the nexus between global development, sustainability, and security in an era of unprecedented change.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author alone and do not represent the United States government or any other government.