Saudi oil infrastructure at risk from drone attacks

Preface. This NYT article was published 4 months ago, and its warning just came true. Quite prescient!

Drones make it pretty easy to anonymously attack the thousands of miles of pipelines across the Arabian peninsula, oil tankers, pumping stations, and refineries. The Saudis counter that they’ve spent quite a bit to protect their infrastructure, but now that drones can be launched 1,000 miles away to accurately hit targets, whatever protections they have may not be enough, because they can evade the kingdom’s main air defenses, which are intended to repel missiles and aircraft rather than smaller objects.

At least as great a threat is Iran or some other nation using cyber warfare to damage the petroleum infrastructure of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.

Peak oil production can not only happen for geological reasons. Politics (war) can also bring peak production about, making the collapse of civilization happen that much sooner, and perhaps a lot of oil left in the ground, which climate activists should love.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Reed, S. May 17, 2019. Saudi Oil Infrastructure at Risk as Small Attacks Raise Potential for Big Disruption. New York Times.

Saudi Arabia spent heavily to protect its oil production lines but rapid changes in technology may mean ports and pipelines are increasingly exposed in the turbulent region.

Across the Arabian peninsula, thousands of miles of pipes run above and below the desert in one of the world’s most sophisticated production lines for pumping oil from the ground and distributing it around the world. This vast system of oil fields, refineries and ports has largely run like clockwork despite political turbulence across the region.

Then a drone strike claimed by Houthi rebels this week forced the Saudis to temporarily halt the flow of a crucial oil artery to the west side of the country. The assault came a day after mysterious incidents damaged two Saudi tankers and two other ships in a key port in the United Arab Emirates.

These were perhaps the most serious attacks on the kingdom’s oil infrastructure since Al Qaeda militants were thwarted trying to blow up a key Saudi facility at Abqaiq in 2006.

While American officials are still trying to determine whether Iran was behind these incidents, the question for the oil market is how well the Saudi and Persian Gulf infrastructure is protected and whether, with tensions building in the region, it could survive a conflict with Iran.

Analysts and executives of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, say the kingdom has spent heavily to protect the industry that is its lifeblood. Key Saudi installations are tightly guarded and protected by missile batteries and other weaponry. “Security systems were bulked up in the 2000s amid the Al Qaeda threat, including the 2006 attack on the Abqaiq facility,” said Ben Cahill, manager for research & advisory, at Energy Intelligence, a research firm. “The country’s oil fields, refineries and pipelines are blanketed by surveillance and remote sensing.”

In light of that security effort, Mr. Cahill and other analysts concede that it was eye-opening, even shocking, that a drone apparently launched from as far as 500 miles away in Yemen, managed to cross deep into Saudi Arabia and cause damage.

It was also worrisome and even embarrassing that someone managed to damage tankers in waters off Fujairah, a vital port in the United Arab Emirates where ships take on fuel and provisions on their way in and out of the Gulf.

Despite the security spending of the last decade, rapid changes in technology may mean that the Saudi infrastructure is more exposed than previously thought, analysts say. United Nations experts have estimated, for instance, that drones used by the Houthis have a range of nearly 1,000 miles allowing them to reach well into Saudi Arabia. “The simple fact that they managed to reach tankers and a pipeline” is meaningful, said Riccardo Fabiani, a geopolitical analyst at Energy Aspects, a market research firm. “It means they could strike at the heart of Saudi interests if they wanted to.”

Iran is well-placed for inflicting pain in the no-war-no-peace existence in the region. Analysts say it is proficient at using relatively cheap unconventional weapons like drones and speed boats, and at covering its tracks. It can also make use of proxies including the Houthi rebels, who claimed responsibility for the pipeline attack.

Analysts say that drones could prove to be a nuisance for producers like the Saudis. It would be difficult if not impossible to protect an entire pipeline system, and even concentrating air defense units around key points like pumping stations, which were hit this week, would mean taking these defenses from somewhere else.

Drones may also be able to evade the kingdom’s main air defenses, which are intended to repel missiles and aircraft rather than smaller objects. Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East and Africa defense specialist at Jane’s Defense Weekly, said that satellite imagery showed that the key Saudi export terminal at Ras Tanura was guarded by batteries of sophisticated United States-made Hawk surface-to-air missiles. But these weapons “might not be able to engage the UAVs (drones) that Iran has developed with small radar cross sections,” he said.

Another concern is that Iran, which is regarded as skilled in digital hacking, could use cyber warfare to damage the petroleum infrastructure of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.

At Saudi Aramco, activities like drilling wells, pumping oil to the surface, and loading the fuel on tankers can all be monitored and managed remotely. Such sophistication, though, may also create openings for attack. “A lot of those movements are run out of a central command center at Saudi Aramco headquarters,” said Phillip Cornell, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institution, who previously worked at Aramco as a senior corporate planning adviser.

Mr. Cornell said that Aramco officials suspected Iran was responsible for a cyber attack earlier in this decade and that “there has been a lot of investment to reinforce those cyber security defenses.”

However, analysts say the cyber vulnerabilities remain a major worry. “I think cyber is the really underappreciated risk,” said Helima Croft, an oil analyst at RBC Capital markets, an investment bank.

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