Given rising energy prices due to increasing global demand, any major system disruption could send markets skyrocketing and even spark a global recession. The primary vulnerabilities overseas involve both production and transportation. Terrorists have attempted to shut down Saudi Arabia’s primary production facility at Abqaiq. Well-known chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz, are vulnerable to attacks as sinking of the oil tanker Limburg in 2002 illustrates. Elsewhere, major U.S. suppliers such as Nigeria have been hampered by regional unrest that could be exploited by violent Islamists.
Within the United States, energy infrastructure is broadly distributed and varied: 300,000 oil and natural gas production facilities; 4,000 off-shore platforms; 278,000 miles of natural gas pipelines; 361 seaports; 104 nuclear power plants; and 80,000 dams. Any major system disruption would be costly; the loss of production and refining capacity following several Gulf hurricanes is still being felt. Even the temporary loss of an Alaska pipeline for corrosion repair caused a price spike.
Nuclear facilities pose a unique security challenge. While well regulated, questions surround the design-basis threat, including the numbers and capabilities of guards and rigor of periodic security exercises. Open cooling ponds, if attacked by air, could result in a release of deadly radiation. New designs should incorporate broader security and non-proliferation policy objectives. Energy distribution systems are dependent on computer systems that are attacked every day by either rogue or state-sponsored hackers.
Or consider the cascading failure of the Northeast energy grid in 2003, which took only 43 seconds to unfold. While triggered by a tree, not a deliberate cyber-attack, it demonstrated the importance of information technology to the operation of large and complex systems we depend upon every day. Stronger cyber-security standards for public companies were included in the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, but new Internet vulnerabilities are being discovered on a regular basis.
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