What do Attacks on Saudi Refineries Mean for US Petroleum Industry Security?


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Over the weekend, Houthi rebels again attempted to attack critical nodes in Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. This time, it was the massive storage and trans-shipment facility at Ras Tanura. While the attacks failed to cause significant damage, they are the most significant attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure since the September 2019 attacks that temporarily took roughly half of the Kingdom’s production offline. Additionally, these recent attacks highlight the symbolic and economic value of targeting critical oil and gas infrastructure.

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Our adversaries would have to be blind to not see the opportunity to inflict massive economic and also increasingly important symbolic damage.

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This leaves the security situation in America’s domestic oil and gas industry more precarious than ever. Prices are rising in large part due to tight supply. Concern over global warming—and extremism generally—are also at a crescendo. This environment makes America’s oil and gas infrastructure a prime target not only for foreign terrorists but also for domestic extremists and eco-terrorists. Our adversaries would have to be blind to not see the opportunity to inflict massive economic and also increasingly important symbolic damage. Iran (which backs the Houthi rebels that just attacked Saudi Arabia) in particular is at least evaluating arguably “non-civilian” targets for reprisal from recent US air strikes. Eco-terrorists have been relatively quiet over the past year of civil rights protests, political violence, and COVID-19, but they won’t stay silent forever.

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American oil and gas infrastructure hubs should be paying attention. Cushing, Oklahoma, for example, is a major oil storage and pipeline interchange—in many ways it is the American version of Ras Tanura, with 91 million barrels of storage capacity and a dozen intersecting pipelines. Not only is the threat level elevated like never before, but new tactics like the drone-bombs pioneered by the Houthis in Saudi Arabia have rendered much of Cushing’s existing physical security measures obsolete. One attacker with a handful of such drone-bombs (or, even large caliber incendiary rounds) could cause tens of billions of dollars of economic damage, dramatic oil price swings, and untold symbolic damage.

America’s oil and gas infrastructure companies must take this evolving threat environment and these evolving tactics seriously—the original Saudi excuse that they could not have anticipated multiple drone-bomb attacks simply would not hold water today. How will American industry respond? Hopefully with their typical quiet professionalism, rather than with towering flames on the evening news.


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