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DHS Encourages Guarding Oilfield Against Cyber Threats

The increasing dependency on digital infrastructure creates a need for security and planning in the Permian Basin that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants to address.

by Corey Paul, McClatchy News Service / April 23, 2014

A lot of oilfield work relies on computer systems, whether controlling production at the well head or tracking arrival of crude to wholesale markets.

And this increasing dependency on digital infrastructure creates a need for security and planning in the Permian Basin that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants to address.

The agency’s El Paso-based Protective Security Advisor C.F. “Buck” Hamilton met to discuss security planning Monday with a few dozen officials who work for the government and private companies at the Region 18 ESC Conference Center Theater. The Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission arranged the meeting.

“How do you get the oil from the ground into the pipes, bought and sold, and royalties assessed?” Hamilton said in an interview. “How dependent on cyber is all of that and could someone with a lot of knowledge in the industry be able to penetrate that and do some bad things?”

Even though Homeland Security officials know of “nothing specific pointed at the Permian Basin,” Hamilton emphasized preparedness. In most cases, cyber threats come from someone who works for a company or agency, he said.

Hamilton said he wants local partners to support a proposal by June to Washington for what the agency calls a Regional Resiliency Assessment Program (RRAP) that identifies critical infrastructure and examines vulnerabilities, threats and potential consequences.

The study, from six to eight weeks, would look at a variety of possible hazards, including weather disasters, but a focus would be cyber security, Hamilton said. That could include bringing in a team to try to penetrate the security systems of participating drilling or pipeline companies in search of flaws. In return, companies could learn from the assessment.

“Based upon the booming oil industry we have here and the fact that we are pumping more oil than we have in decades and how important it is to the nation’s economy overall, there’s probably a good chance that it would get picked up,” Hamilton said. “But I have to have a partnership.”

Alvin Alexis, a retired Texas Ranger who handles corporate security for Access Midstream Partners, said he valued the network of security professionals at the meeting and the avenue to look at his company’s cyber and physical security.

“It’s different when it comes from an outsider to say listen, this is not Al’s idea, this idea is out there and here is an agency that we can go to to bring this to us,” Alexis said. “If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to look at it and say OK, this is where we are short and we can bring these things up here.”

Other attendees included government officials from agencies including the Odessa Police Department and Odessa Fire and Rescue. And there were non-oilfield corporate workers from companies including Oncor, Western National Bank and Waste Control Specialists, the low-level radioactive waste disposal site in Andrews.

“With the boom going on in the Permian Basin it becomes even more necessary to look at our critical infrastructure,” said Barney Welch, the director of Homeland Security for the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission. “We’re talking about everything. That could be from court houses to key resources and facilities that involve the companies working in the oilfield and their protective measures. We know that there are threats, physical or cyber security, that do happen in the region.”

Stephen Lazzari, a manager of public safety for Union Pacific who attended the meeting, said Homeland Security officials assessed the railroad’s security in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“One of the biggest takeaways was the risk from terrorism was relatively low,” but there were tasks they could do better to keep trains moving and minimize risk, Lazzari said. “It’s really a win-win, because they are a new set of eyes looking at what you are doing and bringing things forward that you didn’t see before.”

Proper cyber security, Welch said, ensures that critical infrastructure like pipelines stay safe.

“We are building out here so quickly with the oilfield,” Welch said. “We need to identify those up to the federal level.”

©2014 the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas)

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