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The Fight Over “Energy Security” Just Became Public

by | published March 30th, 2016

The latest terrorist atrocity – this time in Brussels – has drawn attention to a growing cause for concern in the energy sector and beyond.

Chilling reports are now coming in that two of the suicide bombers responsible for last week’s Brussels massacre had been planning an attack on a Belgian nuclear research facility.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, either.

In August 2014, a worker at the Belgian Doel-4 nuclear power plant tried to sabotage it by draining lubricant from the system. While nuclear material was never in any danger, the damage was in excess of $100 million.

Now, the worker responsible was never conclusively identified. But authorities later discovered that an employee of the Doel-4 nuclear plant had left for Syria to join ISIS…

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Attacks, whether planned or successful ones, against energy infrastructure are increasing.

This is going to significantly impact energy investments…

Attacks on Energy Infrastructure are Growing Common

Just a couple of days after the Brussels attacks, a guard was found dead at Belgium’s national radioactive elements institute.

And it’s not just Belgium, either.

In January, Israel’s Electricity Authority was attacked with a sophisticated virus, just as temperatures in Jerusalem were dropping below the freezing point and the country’s electricity consumption reached record highs for two days.

The Israeli government was forced to shut down several computers and even part of the country’s power grid to deal with the attack.

The month before, two days before Christmas, Ukraine suffered the first known power outage caused by a cyberattack, as three of the country’s regional power authorities had their power cut by a virus.

225,000 people were left without power in the dead of the Ukrainian winter, with the virus disconnecting electrical substations from the grid. Hackers affiliated with Russia (which is still in conflict over Ukraine’s eastern regions and Crimea) are the likely suspects, but as is often the case with cyberattacks, proving anything of substance will be difficult.

That’s not to mention the 2012 cyberattack on Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, Saudi Aramco, which wiped out some 30,000 computers, or the 150 successful (out of 1,131 attempted) cyberattacks on the U.S. Department of Energy (which handles the nuclear weapons stockpile in addition to the electrical grid and energy laboratories) between 2010 and 2014.

As you can see, the list just goes on and on.

Of course, when attacks like the ones in Brussels take human life at such a huge scale, economic consequences are far from the first priority.

But over the long-term, the impact on energy security – and thereby price – may be the most long-lasting effect these terrorists achieve.

This goes to show how much has changed since I worked in counter-intelligence (CI)…

The Intelligence Game is Moving Into the Public Eye

Unlike what Hollywood would have you believe, much of the Cold War was actually fought in some of the least “touristy” locations imaginable. The reason was straightforward.

We were targeting an entire network set up by the other side – and they were doing the same against us. In such a scenario you had to identify the most vulnerable locations in the opposition’s command and communications chain, and then exploit it.

These were rarely found in London’s Belgravia or Paris’ Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Instead, you’d often find yourself in the backwaters of the world, where the opposing personnel were at their weakest.

Enter yours truly. One time, I needed to set up a coordination center in a hotel room. This required some equipment. Now, any standard hotel plug would do the trick.

But this was not a normal place – at least for anything beyond the nineteenth century…

I plugged in the equipment… and promptly knocked out electricity for half the town, blowing an entire multi-month operation in the process.

The lesson here was a text book illustration of the primary directive KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. Any operation needed to conform to the minimum expectations of the terrain.

In other words, don’t assume that anything usually available will be there when you land.

Fast forward to today and the war against terrorism.

Our Tactics Need to Change

This is still regarded by some as strictly a law enforcement exercise: capture the bad guys and put them on trial. Unfortunately, that’s really hard to do when the bad guys are only too willing to take themselves out with their own bombs.

Counter-terrorism is quite different from CI. The immediate stakes are now much higher. In my time, one might ultimately (well after the fact) determine (at least part) of what went on from the natural flow of history. Today, the media counts bodies in the streets as soon as an event occurs.

The main approach has changed dramatically, too. During my days in CI, operations were covert (denying the identity of the activity’s sponsor) and/or clandestine (denying the existence of the operation itself). This was a game played in the shadows. The deeper this shadow world, the better.

Today, the war is waged in the open…

This is War

We used to target practitioners and their resources on the other side. We may not have been wearing uniforms but your adversary had at least signed on and knew the risks involved.

Not anymore.

Victims today are innocent bystanders. In fact, today’s operations count on inflicting maximum human damage on people who have no part in whatever injustice is supposed to be the perverted justification for the attack.

Collateral damage is no longer a side effect. It’s now the main focus.

The public still does not understand the rationale here. It is precisely because the victims are innocent that the event receives its massive media exposure. The culprits are counting on it.

And that makes anybody just about anywhere less secure.

It is called “propaganda of the deed,” a psychological tag hung on a distortion of humanity. The attack achieves a massive amount of press time for the miserable creatures perpetuating it.

This is warfare, not a political action. And it deserves to be recognized as such.

But that does come at a price. There had been at least a modicum of comfort in the West by saying that we retain the moral high ground. And I quite agree for the most part. We do not target noncombatants on other side just because they do so with us.

But this has not been a court room exercise for some time. This is war…

Uncertainty is the New Normal

In addition to the horrific loss of lie, the long-term effect of terrorism, now being played out in the streets of major cities (and elsewhere, if “lone wolf” actions are included) is this: uncertainty.

Terrorists don’t have to hit often for this uncertainty to fester, undermining how we conduct ourselves. After all, tourism still has not returned to pre-tragedy levels in Paris. The atrocities linger in media portrayals of an attacked location well after the deed, setting the stage for the next one.

It is also likely to be how we are constrained to conduct our daily lives moving forward – with one glance to our backs.

Following the spate of cyberattacks on energy assets worldwide, as well as the real and growing threat of physical attacks on, for example, nuclear reactors, this uncertainty is now also hitting the energy sector.

And that means Oil & Energy Investor will be changing a bit in focus. Starting today, matters of “energy security” – making sure energy can be safely generated and transmitted despite the now ever-present threat of attack – are going to become an integral part of what we do here. They are just too important to the overall energy picture.

This new approach will also open up some interesting opportunities. Stay tuned for more.

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  1. Robert in Vancouver
    March 30th, 2016 at 18:04 | #1

    Terrorists could take out or reduce middle east oil supply. That would leave the US and others short of oil and gasoline. Economic and social damage would be immense. We should be building pipelines from Canada to the US and to export terminals on Canada’s coasts to create better energy security.

  2. Whysaduck
    March 30th, 2016 at 18:23 | #2

    This serves as a timely reminder of the main reason why having nuclear power as part of the mix in the future of power generation is unacceptable. Dr. Batty Commoner warned at least a decade before the public knew of the internet that nuclear plants were the most vulnerable targets of terrorist attacks in the whole energy grid. Also a skyjacker forced a plane to fly in the vicinity of a nuclear plant in 1972, now nuclear plants are reinforced for protection against any commercial plane in the sky in 1972, not good enough. Let’s stop trying to put lipstick on the nuclear fusion pig,

  3. Kevin Beck
    March 30th, 2016 at 19:09 | #3

    Additionally, there was the cyber-attack on the dam in New York earlier this year, and an incident near San Jose, CA, where a major power substation was attacked with high-powered rifles. Either of these could have had major impacts on large groups of people if these facilities would have been destroyed or seriously damaged.

  4. Gene Vaughn
    March 30th, 2016 at 19:56 | #4

    Very good and somewhat disturbing but we must always remember that
    we could very well be facing a close of this period of time that we have enjoyed for the last 2,000 years. Thanks for the article. Gene

  5. March 30th, 2016 at 21:37 | #5

    Good report on energy security. I have been evaluating the rationale of moving away from large platform and regional nuclear power to small localized power such as liquid cooled nuclear reactors such as those powered by Thorium. The operational and security risks alone justify moving to these “set and forget” types of power sources. You break them – they cool down and stop, without spreading radioactivity.

  6. Lockxley Bailey
    March 31st, 2016 at 20:08 | #6

    We got oil and coal so…

  7. Gary Detlefs
    April 1st, 2016 at 09:34 | #7

    Thank you for these insights.

    The world of warfare is changing so quickly that it is frightening. It is not a question of if but only a question of when it will be another world war. I don’t think the average person has any concept and how different it will be

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