Millions of kilometers of pipeline crisscross the globe, carrying oil, gas, and even water. But while they are an efficient means of transporting energy, pipelines are also highly vulnerable.
When gasoline prices hit record highs, as they recently have, consumers are often quick to put all the blame on OPEC, the multinational cartel of oil-producing nations. But at least part of those price hikes can be attributed to more shadowy figures. Sabotage along the tentacles of pipeline that stretch across the world can affect prices, analysts say, by making oil traders nervous.
Gal Luft, director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and a specialist in energy security, says the vulnerability of pipelines became readily apparent after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "After 9/11 it became apparent to terrorists that oil and gas are the Achilles heel of the American economy and the Western economy. And there has been a growth in the number of attacks on oil facilities all over the world. Now, if you look at the supply chain of oil, you see that pipelines are the softest of all targets, and they are the easiest to attack. And that's why we see a growing number of pipeline attacks all over the world, but primarily (in) the Middle East," he said.
Pipelines are generally built above ground and in the open, making them especially vulnerable to sabotage. Nowhere has this become more acutely apparent, say analysts, than in Iraq.
Attacks on pipelines take place with alarming frequency. Robert Ebel, chair of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that hampers Iraq's reconstruction efforts. "Pipelines in Iraq have been extremely vulnerable to the insurgents," he said. "They're visible targets. A pipeline is relatively easy to blow up if you know where the weak, the least defensible points are. And, of course, with the pipeline down, you can't produce. With a pipeline down, you can't export. If you can't export, you can't earn any money to rebuild your economy. So it's sort of a double whammy (dose of bad luck)."
Pipelines are also vulnerable to accidents. Whether caused by accident or sabotage, a pipeline rupture can cause environmental damage, including fires.
Mr. Ebel adds that there is also a widespread problem of thievery from pipelines, not only in Iraq, but in other oil producing nations as well. "In addition to sabotage, you'll also get thievery. Somebody blows up a pipeline and walks away, he's a saboteur. Another gentlemen will come along and poke a hole in it using a high-powered rifle to shoot into a pipeline carrying crude oil or petroleum products and gather up the oil spurting out and sell it. That happens rather frequently," he said.
Shell Oil officials have said Nigeria loses up to 10 per cent of its total output to theft, which can lead to tragic human consequences. In 1998, thieves punctured a Nigerian pipeline, which sent local residents scavenging for the fuel. An oil fire started that killed at least 500 people and injured some two-thousand others.
Guarding against pipeline sabotage is an expensive and labor-intensive job. There simply aren't enough troops to protect every stretch of a pipeline. Remote surveillance aircraft, sensors, or satellites can help. Pipelines can also be built underground, which makes them less vulnerable. But that also makes them more expensive.
Gal Luft says the best safeguard is to have top-notch repair crews on standby to ensure that any damage is quickly repaired. "The important thing to realize is that even if you deploy all the guards in the world and all the technologies, there will still always be a place for someone to come up to the pipeline and plant a few pounds of explosives and blow it up. So the secret is that at the same time we're trying to protect the pipeline is to minimize the damage by making sure that repair happens pretty fast and that the oil goes back on line within several days, and not several months," he said.
To illustrate the dangers, Mr. Luft's group notes that the nearly completed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, slated to transport some one million barrels of oil a day from the Caspian Sea to western markets via Turkey, has attracted the attention not only of radical Islamic groups, but also of other ethnic terrorist groups operating along the pipeline's nearly 18-hundred kilometer route.