Industry tougher than it may appear

The US Department of Defense recently came to Houston with the goal of designing a theoretical campaign to destroy the nation's offshore infrastructure.

The US Department of Defense recently came to Houston with the goal of designing a theoretical campaign to destroy the nation's offshore infrastructure. They recruited a crack team of specialists from a broad range of fields: safety specialists from major operators who could pin-point strengths and weaknesses, service providers who could explain the best way to get unauthorized personnel onto a platform, rig, helicopter, or service vessel. They also met with specialists in demolition and military tactics.

For two days this group was briefed on security and the latest technical innovations, then asked how best to destroy or cripple the offshore E&P business both domestically and abroad. As one might imagine, it took a while for these experts to warm up to the idea. Asked basically to act as the devil's advocate committee, the report generated by this group will remain closely held if not classified and at several points in the discussion it was clear the speakers scared themselves.

Committed to preventing anything like this from ever happening, it was hard at first for these experts to look at things from another point of view. Consider that their only objective in life was to destroy and terrorize the US, or outside nations, using offshore personnel and equipment.

At times the discussions could be tedious, focusing on the details of technology where the devil, come to find out, really does reside. At other times they could be shocking. Comments from otherwise conservative and respectable businessmen would open "Well, if you really wanted to kill a lot of people..."

By the second day of this event (organized by Energy Valley and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments) the atmosphere in the conference room was like that around a campfire where children telling ghost stories inadvertently frighten themselves. While it is true that the simple number of offshore facilities makes them an attractive target, this also was determined to be one of the greatest deterrents. Unlike onshore targets in urban areas, the offshore infrastructure is sparsely populated. There is such diversity and redundancy among these systems that it was downright frustrating trying to cripple the entire industry with one attack. For every disaster scenario that began with "You could plant a bomb here," there was a response along the lines of "Well, that would be expensive and might interrupt service, but most of that equipment is skid mounted, and the production could be rerouted to another platform."

No one likes to consider the possibility of future terrorist attacks, but it is comforting to see that a room full of highly-qualified experts, with access to proprietary knowledge, found the task of shutting down production offshore to be a real head-scratcher.

Comforting, but not surprising

If one looks at the offshore environment, it is not surprising that a single attack would not be particularly effective. These systems are designed to operate for 20 or more years in harsh weather with minimal human or mechanical intervention. They are by definition in remote areas away from any population.

Many of the ideas for sabotage were answered with the hurricane scenario. In the Gulf of Mexico, for example, all offshore facilities are evacuated on a more or less regular basis, every time a hurricane threatens. Many are designed to operate unmanned for extended periods. Subsea equipment is universally designed to fail shut in case of emergency.

Thanks to regular crew changes, the systems to evacuate are up and running around the clock. Many of the components used in offshore E&P are designed to be broken down and easily replaced. In a sense, everything out there is transportable because it had to be carried to the site and installed in the first place.

The robustness, toughness, redundancy, and flexibility of these systems should be a point of pride for the industry. While any system is vulnerable to attack, it is clear that the demands of installing and operating systems out of the sight of land set a pretty high threshold.

William Furlow

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