Origin of threats to energy infrastructures

Offshore energy infrastructures are complex constructions which require technological expertise and hard work in order to be built, overcoming the challenges posed by their geographical location. However, this same feature also constitutes an advantage in terms of security: attacking an offshore platform or a pipeline laid on the seabed or buried in it is a difficult task which can be performed only by an organisation able to deploy the relevant skills and resources.

Generally speaking, offshore security threats are activities that pose an intentional risk to offshore oil and gas installation operations.[1] Such threats can be classified in several ways, based on different criteria.[2] The most common are geographical criteria, such as local or global, national or transnational. This classification can be applied easily, but does not represent a useful tool since it lacks reference to the attackers’ tactics and motivations, and therefore does not allow any effective countermeasure to be devised.

Another, more operative classification is based on the tactics used by the attackers i.e. air or sea warfare, suicide bombing, cyber-weapons and mechanical sabotage, just to mention the most common ones. This classification allows clear design of tactical countermeasures. However, it does not provide a clear understanding of the goal pursued by the attackers and therefore does not allow a more global approach to risk-reduction measures.

A third possible classification is based on the political goals of the attackers. Compared to other classifications, this distinction provides a more useful tool for a strategic approach to possible countermeasures. Indeed, a producer country’s government can proactively address the causes of potential attacks, instead of devising passive or purely tactical countermeasures.

Political goals essentially overlap with the organisational nature of potential attackers: the government of a State clearly has a different set of goals from the leadership of a transnational non-state actors with a religious- inspired agenda, or the head of a criminal organisation.

Moreover, in turn, there is a strong link between the nature of potential attackers and their capabilities and tactics. As we shall see in the next section, certain capabilities are typical of just one type of actor, while others are common to several different actors. However, the operative details of this tactical perspective are less relevant in this work, since the focus here is on the overall approach used by the government in order to reduce threats and grant a safer general context for the energy industries, rather than the procedures deployed by relevant security services on the ground.

All things considered, the classification used in this work will be based on the political goals of the potential attackers, distinguishing four major categories. The first category is made up of those actors whose goal is to redefine sovereign boundaries, and is necessarily associated with the only international subject which can claim territorial rights i.e. the State. Bordering States may have governments which feel entitled to claim a redefinition of the maritime borders or, more importantly, to claim ownership of resources located below the seabed.

Offshore infrastructures in deep waters are particularly exposed to threats from this type of actor, especially when they are located near maritime borders and could therefore be included in territorial claims. Moreover, the extension of the geological formation and the location of the reserves tapped by offshore infrastructures can be disputed. For an actor aiming at a redefinition of the borders, these infrastructures may become part of the claim or even a potential military target.

A second category is made up of actors whose goal is to cause an ideological regime change, and is generally associated with national or transnational non-state actors. For an actor wishing to destabilise the government of a producer country, interrupting energy production or disrupting export flows is an effective way to reduce the cash flows to the State budget and thus weaken the government. Moreover, constantly attacking infrastructures owned or operated by international companies raises their operational costs and creates a disincentive to further investments.[3]

Non-state actors could also attempt to drive international operators away from a producer country and compromise its production capabilities, for example by targeting foreign workers. As a consequence, the government’s ability to collect export receipts could be dramatically undermined, in addition to its ability to continue public spending to foster economic growth and gain political support.11

Unlike states, which can theoretically aim to control an infrastructure or exploit the reserves in an area, non-state actors are not entitled to any rights. Therefore, they can pursue their goal of provoking a regime change through any means, including complete destruction of infrastructures. Provoking extensive damage is indeed functional to the success of their strategy of weakening a government in order to overthrow it.

A third category is made up of actors whose goal is to cause local or national policy changes. This group encompasses several potential groups with a local basis, ranging from environmental activists to local citizens aiming at an improvement of living standards, or striking workers.

In this case, the demands are more limited and do not usually include a regime change. As a consequence, their actions tend to be demonstrative and limited in scope. These actions are indeed largely symbolic, since they want to draw the government’s attention to a local issue rather than interrupt export flows or weaken the state budget.

The actors which can be part of this category are by far the most numerous and are present almost everywhere. However, the level of threat is very low, not only because these actors are usually small or loosely organised, but also because their actions are focused on a local objective which can be addressed quite easily by the government.

A fourth category is made up of actors whose political goal is to gain tolerance for their illegal economic activities. Clearly, this category coincides with criminal organisations which may wish to indirectly exploit the wealth created by energy production.

Unlike the case of onshore oil infrastructures, offshore infrastructures cannot be easily tapped with illegal means, as occurs in several contexts, especially in Africa. Offshore infrastructures can only become a potential target for blackmailing: minor incidents can be caused as retaliation against the government, in the case of tough anti-crime measures.[4] [5]

  • [1] For a definition of risk, see World Economic Forum, Global Risks 2014 - Ninth Edition, 2014, p. 12.
  • [2] See M. Kashubsky, (2013).
  • [3] See J. Giroux, “Global Platforms and Big Returns: Energy Infrastructure Targeting in the 21st Century”, CTNNewsletter Special Bulletin Protecting Critical Energy Infrastructure from Terrorist Attacks, no. 18, 2010.
  • [4] See M. Stoppino, Potere e teoria politica, 3rd edition, Giuffre, 2001.
  • [5] A fifth category might made up of actors whose political goal is the complete submission and the annexationof producer countries. However, in this case the relevance of threats to infrastructure integrity is subordinatedto the more general issue of the very existence of the producer country.
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