Submarine pipeline security

Energy security beneath the waves.

Submarine pipeline security: an essential consideration

Guest post by Westminster International Ltd.

When it comes to a commodity such as oil, one which is both economically valuable and essential for the operation of society, it’s essential that every precaution is taken to safeguard its transportation and use. Not only is such protection critical to the ongoing fortunes of companies and nations, but it’s also necessary for the preservation of the way of life of ordinary citizens. Simply put, the more oil that is prevented from getting to its destination, the more expensive energy becomes for the citizens in the affected countries.

Clearly, the threat posed by the interruption of oil transit is grave; and the potential causes of such an occurrence are many. The importance of submarine oil pipelines is undeniable in terms of international energy transportation; but what can be done to safeguard these pipelines?

 What specifically is threatening pipelines?

As with any important transportation option, the operation of oil pipelines is assailed by a variety of potential threats, some of which are as old as the first construction projects that mankind embarked upon, while others are a more recent creation.

In terms of unavoidable threats, nature is the largest; a strong current can be enough to dislodge or damage a pipeline, while a rocky seabed can erode a pipeline’s integrity over time. At the opposite end of the spectrum, areas of seabed that are particularly soft run the risk of making critical maintenance difficult or impossible to complete; threatening the overall viability of a pipeline. Rarer occurrences such as earthquakes and tsunamis can also have a negative effect on a pipeline’s lifespan.

The number of man-made threats submarine pipelines face are predictably numerous, though they most often occur at land based terminals, due to the comparative ease of access. The two primary forms of human interference with pipelines are sabotage and theft. Of course, the nature of oil pipelines make them an obvious target for either activity, they often run through remote locations, are generally fairly easy to break into or destroy; and provide thieves with a lucrative reward, and terrorists with a high value target.

Sadly, accidental damage is also a very real possibility; construction projects often take place nearby and directly around pipelines, and all it can take is one misplaced digging or drilling operation to cause large amounts of damage. This goes double for submerged pipelines; activities like dredging can threaten the ongoing safety of such a supply route, as can the movement of wayward anchors. It goes without saying that underwater pipelines are very difficult to repair once they’ve been ruptured; and can cause a great deal of ecological problems, as well as potentially endangering those who caused the leak in the first place.

What are the solutions to these problems?

As you would expect from such a potentially costly problem, a number of solutions have been put forward over the years, each with their own range of pros and cons.

Diplomatic/policy decisions

As has been discussed before on this site, one of the more obvious deterrents available to state legislators is the ability to increase the penalties incurred by those who steal from pipelines. More power divested to law enforcement should equate to a fall in crime; and if funding and legislation is specifically targeted at pipeline security, it stands to reason that there should be a downturn in criminal activity targeting such critical infrastructure.

Similarly, diplomatic measures taken by those who repeatedly fall victim to sabotage on their pipelines are also a viable option. For a recent large scale example; the US recently took action against the theft of oil from Syrian pipelines by Islamic State; conducting a series of surgical strikes aimed at crippling captured oil infrastructure. While this obviously resulted in the destruction of pipelines in question, it does demonstrate the broad effectiveness of a diplomatic response.

Technological counter measures

Regardless of the location of the pipeline, there are numerous automated security options available to pipeline stakeholders; acting as both deterrents and warnings to those considering interfering with the pipeline’s operation.

One of the technologies increasingly being utilised for this purpose are Acoustic Fibre Optic Pipeline Security Systems (AFOPSS), providing pipeline owners with a means to easily monitor activities. AFOPSS technology transforms fibre optic cable into an acoustic sensor, which is able to detect vibrations in the ground with such accuracy that the vibrations made by machinery and tools can be easily differentiated from human footsteps; providing monitors with a  precise impression of exactly what activity is taking place around the pipeline they’ve been assigned to protect. In practice, this technology prevents problems before they occur, or, at the very least during their occurrence. This therefore poses considerable advantages over existing systems, which tend to only facilitate alerts after  a damaging event has happened; AFOPSS provides a far more proactive solution.

AFOPSS can be seen in particular as an improvement upon other frequently utilised sabotage and theft prevention methods, which generally rely upon visual identification of criminal activity, or leakage. In the past, such methods involved regular patrols and maintenance checks, which were fairly easy to circumvent; though more recent iterations rely on cameras. While often used remotely, they’re often frequently mounted on planes or drones, in order to scan larger areas more efficiently. Of course, not only are such methods still easy to avoid (simply learn the schedule and avoid them), but such methods very rarely result in actual prevention of illegal activity or accidental damage; they simply make it easier to identify when it has occurred.

Training and awareness

This is a far more effective tactic as a means to prevent accidental damage to a pipeline; advice and training is going to have very little effect on those who set out to damage or steal from pipelines. It’s amazing how much of a difference that such training can have; many seafarers give little thought to the presence of, or potential to damage submarine pipelines. Once the threat is understood, and tactics put in place to minimise occurrences of such damage, pipeline owners can rest that much easier.

Policy and best practice documents have existed for years now, but ensuring that they continue to be distributed, and taught to those who would benefit from the information the most, is essential. Being more careful with the placement and drag of anchors plays a crucial part in this, as does taking extra care when planning dredging routes.

Prevention is key

The three approaches above demonstrate something that common sense has long dictated, and modern advances in detection and communication technology now make considerably easier; when it comes to minimising ecological fallout from pipelines and loss of revenue to pipeline stakeholders, prevention really is the key.

The views and opinions expressed in MSR guest articles do not necessarily reflect those held by MSR or its staff.

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