A retired, highly-decorated Special Forces officer and member of “SEAL Team 6” has conducted an alarming new security assessment of the vulnerabilities of a completed northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. His conclusion? It is shockingly easy for a small group of people with little or no training to attack the pipeline and cause an Exxon Valdez-sized spill into the heart of America, threatening drinking water for millions. And the government should immediately conduct a full-scale threat assessment before Secretary Kerry finishes his National Interest Determination.
Dave Cooper is the former Command Master Chief of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (known to most as SEAL Team 6) and 25-year veteran with a silver star and six bronze stars for combat valor. While he has never done a commercial threat assessment of this kind, he has spent a decade assessing threats and targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. NextGen Climate (led by Tom Steyer, a board member at the Center for American Progress) asked him to do a threat assessment of the proposed northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. Cooper says this is not an indictment of pipeline builder TransCanada — his purpose was to “objectively answer or identify the security challenges for the Keystone pipeline.”
Throughout Keystone XL’s approval process, both proponents and opponents have paid a lot of attention to pipeline safety. Some say that pipelines are safer than shipping oil by rail, while others point to pipeline explosions, spills, leaks, and failures that threaten aquifers, sensitive lands, and populous areas. The security vulnerabilities of the pipeline receive little mention. In fact, Cooper points out that the detailed discussion of how safe a completed Keystone XL pipeline would be actually provides detailed information to would-be criminals, saboteurs, or terrorists like the route, vulnerable areas, and the thickness of the pipeline. Even though much of this disclosure is unavoidable — on the part of owners and government officials — Cooper said it was “concerning” that neither spoke much about security.
TransCanada says their security plans are confidential, something that Cooper applauds. “However, that doesn’t jibe with what I saw when I actually visited one of the sites,” he said. “There was no security — so ‘confidential’ that there was no security. Putting up a fence? Putting the pipe in the ground? Those things really add to the safety of the whole thing but they do little or nothing to bolster security.”
Oil pipelines are attacked with alarming regularity in other countries — Iraq, Colombia, Nigeria, Russia, Mexico. Many have troops that directly defend pipelines. But in the United States, it’s essentially unheard of — so much so that, according to Cooper, we are in danger of an “optimism bias” that ensures that threats are not taken seriously until a catastrophic event happens. It takes an event like that to elicit the policies, investments, and decisions that would prevent the catastrophe in the first place.
Cooper was “unable to find much in the way of security steps at existing, similar pipelines.” It is somewhat unsurprising that pipelines are so unwatched, as 80 percent of pipeline spills are discovered by nearby residents or company employees rather than monitoring technology.
He conducted a “red cell scenario” analysis of a domestic pipeline’s security vulnerabilities, accessing only the information available to someone with an internet connection and no inside knowledge from TransCanada or government. This involved a site visit to one existing pipeline — Keystone 1 — to ascertain how easy it would be for someone to gain access to a completed Keystone XL pipeline. This was done as a “cold shot,” meaning a mock penetration of a target with no practice or notification and very little planning. Cooper just went to the small town of Stanton, Nebraska and walked up to the pipeline.
He wrote that he was able to “stand at a Keystone 1 pump station for over 15 minutes snapping photos,” and “was not approached, questioned, or ever noticed.”
The assessment “found that a handful of terrorists could use just four pounds of explosives at each of the three pump facilities located [REDACTED] to cause explosives that could trigger a catastrophic spill of 7.24 million gallons of dilbit (with its highly toxic chemicals).” In the most damaging scenarios depicting a coordinated attack across dozens of miles of pipeline, several explosions at pump stations would cause 60 percent of the oil in those sections of pipeline to spill. Worryingly, it would take eleven and a half minutes to shut down the pipeline to stop the flow. Both of those numbers came directly, according to Mr. Cooper, from TransCanada’s own estimates. He used this to calculate that the amount could reach 8.21 million gallons.
Cooper also raised the specter of the 2010 spill of heavy Canadian crude oil in Kalamazoo, Michigan as an example of why an attack in the rural, empty areas in Keystone’s path would be even more dangerous. The spill response benefited from being close to a populous area that could support the massive cleanup effort that continues to this day, and also local regulations that positioned response infrastructure nearby. The pipeline that ruptured was also not shut down for 17 hours.
So given the vulnerabilities Mr. Cooper’s report highlights, what can be done to secure pipelines, if anything? “No pipeline, no matter how small, can ever be completely secured,” the assessment reads, and “this is particularly true for a pipeline the size of Keystone XL.” Cooper contends that pipelines are a vulnerable form of energy infrastructure, and the government should conduct a security assessment before allowing another one to be built.
Domestic intelligence agencies have responded to threats to busy domestic energy infrastructure, such as the plot to blow up fuel lines at New York’s JFK Airport in 2007. Most threats of this nature will be caught “upstream” of an actual event taking place, though this does not remove the possibility of an attack without warning.
“The fact that such an attack at the scale described here hasn’t occurred yet should provide no comfort, yet workable approaches are not out of the question,” the assessment says.
In 2004, the Transportation Security Administration’s Pipeline Security Division reviewed the security plans and inspected the facilities of the 100 largest pipeline systems in the country. In 2008, the TSA conducted its Critical Facility Inspection Program, including an in-depth inspection of all critical facilities at the largest 125 pipeline systems in the country. This comprised about 600 separate facilities. The 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 requires the TSA to plan for security support of the “most critical” pipelines under severe security alerts and when there is a specific security threat related to pipeline infrastructure.
An unredacted version of the assessment was hand-delivered to Ambassador Pasquale’s office at the State Department, and it is entirely possible that the federal government is assessing the security vulnerabilities through the National Interest Determination. Cooper and NexGen also briefed several members of Congress including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), as well as the staffs of Senators who support the pipeline.
The vast majority of Americans have heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. “The very nature of Keyston XL’s newworthiness, should it ever be built, increases its attractiveness as a target to terrorists,” the assessment reads, with a “built-in emotional impact.” There is a circular form of reasoning here, that the opposition to the pipeline raises its cachet and profile as a target, though Cooper dismisses talk of keeping quiet.
“I think that the questions of how and if this 1,100-mile piece of infrastructure could be reasonably protected should be an important of both the policy discussion and the National Interest Determination currently being made by Secretary Kerry,” he said.
Though he would not call himself a supporter or opponent of the controversial project, he told a group of reporters on Wednesday that “with what I know today, I would say don’t put the pipeline in the ground given the vulnerabilities.” He said that transporting oil by rail is “probably not as secure as” transporting oil by pipeline, because rail is less predictable and static.
“What will be required is new thinking,” the assessment concludes. “In the meantime, the proposed pipeline represents a significant tactical problem: namely, if a position can’t be reasonably defended, then in general it shouldn’t happen. As the Secretary of State completes his National Interest Declaration, he should ask the hard questions that resolve that problem.”
Secretary Kerry has extra time to ask those questions, likely well into November. In April, the State Department extended the public comment period on the proposal to give more time for federal agencies to weigh in, following a local court decision that struck down a Nebraska law that permitted swifter approval of the pipeline.
Kate Sheppard at the Huffington Post reported that the State Department responded to the assessment via email, saying:
“The Department of State received a report about potential threats to the proposed Keystone Pipeline project on June 2. The State Department’s review of the Presidential Permit application for the proposed project — and the ultimate determination of whether granting a permit serves the national interest — will take a number of factors into consideration, including the national security of the United States.
“No meetings between State Department officials and Mr. Cooper have been scheduled or held.”