On Tuesday night, ten climate activists were arrested for attempting to shut down all the pipelines carrying tar sands oil into the United States from Canada by manually shutting off pipelines in Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and Washington State. The attack is being described as the most significant of its kind against American oil and gas pipeline infrastructure in history and was designed to spark action against climate change. But the only outcome from the sabotage was a heightened risk of a massive oil spill caused by pipeline rupture from the unexpected shutoff.
The activists are members of a group called Climate Direct Action, which is affiliated with the Climate Disobedience Center. The Center’s self-described purpose is to serve as “a catalyst for direct action, creating points of vivid moral clarity, emboldening both climate activists and the unlikeliest of allies, to capture the heart and soul of the climate debate.” The activists documented themselves breaking into compounds with bolt cutters and turning valves on these major pipelines, which included the Enbridge lines 4 and 67 in Leonard, MN; TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline in Walhalla, ND; Spectra Energy’s Express pipeline in Coal Banks Landing, MT; and Kinder Morgan’s Trans-Mountain pipeline in Anacortes, WA.
The activists were successful in briefly shutting down the pipelines, but quick responses from the pipeline companies averted potential disaster. It was a near-miss, but there are a few key considerations from an energy security perspective.
- This was a relatively unsophisticated attack: The protesters, equipped with bolt cutters, filmed themselves breaking through chain link fences surrounding the valve points, cutting through the chains that were looped through the valve wheels to prevent turning, and then twisting the valves shut. Granted, the attacks were carefully planned and coordinated and the activists were knowledgeable of vulnerabilities in the pipeline security systems, but the effort required no special equipment or knowledge. Of the pipelines attacked, one was not transporting petroleum products at the time, and the others were temporarily shut down by the operating companies to prevent pipeline rupture.
- If not so rapidly addressed, the human and environmental consequences of this action could have been severe: Afrin Sopariwala, a spokeswoman for the group, claims that the activists worked for several months to try and shut the pipelines in a way that wouldn’t cause an environmental disaster—but experts question the ability of these protestors to access the proprietary information and control systems that would have enabled them to conduct a safe shutdown. Each pipeline company involved says that there was a massive risk of devastating damage to infrastructure and the environment. Pipelines are often highly pressurized, and the unplanned shutting off of a valve can cause ruptures that result in catastrophic oil spills or even explosions. The momentum is “like a freight train,” Paul Tullis of Tullis Engineering Consultants told Reuters. “If these people are hydraulic engineers, they might be able to do this safely.” Oil pipelines operate under pressure that can reach as much as 1,000 pounds per square inch, and the liquid inside is extremely hot and flammable.
- Successful shutdown would cause some turmoil in energy markets: Together, the lines affected can carry up to 2.8 million barrels of oil a day, which is 15 percent of U.S. daily crude demand. Of course, without physical damage to the infrastructure, pipeline operation can resume fairly quickly, which sheds doubt on the assertion from the protestors that they were not looking to cause physical damage to the pipelines. The activists claim in other statements they were looking to stop the flow of oil from Canada to the U.S., not just put on a publicity stunt—but if this was true, it’s unclear how this could be achieved without physically damaging the pipelines. Were a major disruption to happen, pipeline outages of this sort would lead to regional dislocations, causing crude differentials to widen and pushing up area gasoline prices. In order to make up for the disruptions, refiners would have to either draw down from inventories, secure more supplies from other regions (which may include waterborne imports), or have the crude sent to them by another form of transport, such as rail. Oil traders would be on the lookout for opportunities through the wider arbitrages to move oil from a place of surplus to the area of deficit, helping the market adjust smoothly. In a situation where crude oil markets are less flush than they are today, disruptions could cause a sharp price spike. But what’s important to note is that given that the chances of a meaningful disruption to energy supply and prices is so low, the only thing that this stunt was likely to achieve (aside from publicity) was an environmental disaster—a curious goal for so-called environmental activists.
- There’s fairly little that pipeline companies can do to prevent such attacks: On the five pipelines that were impacted, valve stations occur approximately every 20 miles, and it would be prohibitively expensive to place guards at every station. There are over 200,000 lines of oil and gas pipelines across the United States, and many of the valve stations are in rural or remote areas, secured by little more than a chainlink fence and padlock. Companies, like pipeline operators, that require advanced safety management of complex engineering systems have an incentive to invest heavily in risk management. However, there is very little they can do to eliminate all threats from deliberate sabotage.
- Pipeline attacks are rare but growing in frequency: Environmentalists, frustrated by the failure to stop or delay oil and gas production projects, may be turning to pipelines as points in the energy infrastructure that they can impact. Success of the climate movement in delaying the Keystone pipeline, as well as the current attention focused on the Dakota Access Pipeline, has put mid-stream infrastructure into the spotlight. In addition to this week’s action, which is reportedly the greatest attack of such magnitude on U.S. pipelines, Enbridge reported a thwarted attack earlier this year. Given the growing politicization of climate change and pipelines, the risk of a follow-up or copycat attempt is very real.
- The vulnerabilities that exist in the U.S. are often exploited globally: Pipeline sabotage is a common problem in unstable oil-producing countries. Sometimes the efforts are part of political protests or acts of war; and sometimes pipelines are tapped so that stolen fuel can be siphoned away and sold on the black market. In the United States, the legal penalties for such acts of sabotage are extremely high but, unfortunately, this is one of the few steps that can be taken to deter such activities.