Maintaining safe and reliable energy infrastructure: A national security concern

In March 2019, and at the height of one of the most recent power outages across the country, news broke that one of the transmission towers near the Head office of Ghana Grid Company (GRIDCo) at Tema has fallen over onto another tower, leading to the loss of 180 megawatts of power; creating power outages in parts of Tema, Accra, Kasoa and Kumasi.

Officials of the state utility discovered that the bolts holding the pylon had been loosened causing it to fall over, concluding that it was an act of vandalism and not an attempted theft.

When the Minister of Energy Mr. John Peter Amewu later had the opportunity to tour the tracks, he also concluded that it was an act of sabotage by some unscrupulous individuals to thwart the efforts of the government in ensuring uninterrupted power supply. The minister also alleged that the act was possibly to score some political points by making the government unpopular.

Following this incident and within a space of two weeks, there was a reported arsonist attack on pipelines which belonged to Cirrus Oil Services, a private oil company at the Tema energy enclave. The report was that a suspected person had parked used car tyres on the pipelines and set them ablaze.

Although the pipelines were not in use at the time because they were newly constructed and undergoing a leak test with water in the lines, the development raised a lot of concerns at the time because they were initially thought to be conveying gas and connected to one of the generating plants within the Tema enclave.

But while there has been past attacks on energy infrastructures, these two incidents amplifies the vulnerability of Ghana’s energy infrastructures to deliberate physical attacks. It brings to the fore the need to urgently protect these assets from the many potential threats which includes malicious vandalism and theft of essential equipment belonging to the power and oil sectors of the energy industry.

Due to the greater risk of accidents that could result in loss of life, significant environmental harm, and/or disruption to the reliability and continuity of energy systems, maintaining safe and reliable energy infrastructure is a matter of national security. It is a national security issue also because of the central role these facilities occupy in the socio-economic development of the country. Again, it remains a national security concern because these illegal activities are sometimes perpetuated by criminal minds to intimidate and coerce policy changes.

 

Widespread Issue

Attacks on energy sector assets have become increasingly coordinated and prevalent in all regions around the globe. The threats to these vulnerable assets are quite significant and they are occurring with increasing frequency, and complicated by their remote and dispersed locations.

In the power sector for example, equipment like distribution transformers are being vandalized for their copper windings, oil, bolts and nuts. Transmission towers also come under attack for their members (angle irons) and bolts and nuts. Some of the clean transformer oil, aluminum and copper conductors, angle irons, bolts and nuts finds their way into the open market for purposes of cooking, and for smelting (door handles, caskets, three-legged pots etc.) and fabrication works.

Within the oil and gas sectors, illegal tapping of pipelines and bunkering are familiar acts of stealing petroleum by hacking into the systems and syphoning off oil and gas, and on most occasions causing spillage and compromising transmission systems.

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Poor infrastructure, unemployment, and greed have been identified as some of the factors that influence people to attack energy infrastructures. Another reason has been linked to lack of trust between oil companies and host communities. Some acts of vandalism occur as a prank, while other persons vandalize to vent anger, frustration or anxiety without personal confrontation.

Nigeria, Mexico, Iraq, Russia and Indonesia are listed as the top five countries most plagued by oil theft, with close to 75% of the stolen oil finding its way into the international oil market, with the rest being refined at “artisanal refineries”. In Nigeria, it is reported that some unscrupulous Niger Delta indigenes and foreigners collaborate to carry out the illegal activities mostly during the night at oil terminals, pipelines and wellheads.

 

Cost

The socio-economic and environmental impacts of theft and vandalism on energy systems could be huge, not to mention the negative impact it could have on business reputation and the potential damage to stakeholder confidence and value.

The attacks poses a greater risk of accidents that results in human fatalities, and significant environmental harm through pollution and fire. They lead to financial losses, and sometimes disruption to the reliability and continuity of energy systems. Leaks in pipeline systems could result in loss of corporate reputation, and also may in some cases lead to prosecution under environmental legislation. Other concerns is that the repeated attacks on the assets often impedes the expansion of energy systems, loss of economic activities for local communities, and loss of revenue to government; resulting in the reduction of funding for development initiatives.

In Nigeria for example, vandalism of pipelines has become a major issue for the state to fight on daily basis. For an economy that is heavily reliant on petroleum revenue, any form of attack on its pipelines come with a great socio-economic effect. A recent publication by “World Pipeline” magazine shows that the Niger Delta which holds 95% of Nigeria’s oil reserves, accounts for over 90% of the region’s export and foreign exchange earnings, with the total Nigeria revenue being over 70% of this. The report continue that, in the area of the Niger Delta, oil theft has grown to such a degree that Nigeria is at present losing over 800,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil, with this situation reflecting in Nigeria’s oil production decline from 2.2 million bpd to 1.4 million bpd between 2016 and 2017.

According to Shell Nigeria, 90% of its pipeline leaks are as a result of illegal activities. It reports that the number of sabotage-related spills is reported to have increased to 111 in 2018 compared to 62 in 2017, and that since 2012 the company has removed more than 1,160 illegal theft points. Some of the spillage recorded caused destruction to farms and lands, directly reducing the area of arable land. Pollution of water courses, as well as flora and fauna affected marine, aquatic life and water sources.

Copper theft is also impacting negatively on the bottom line of power utilities, and having a devastating effect on the South African economy. According to the South Africa Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (SACCI’s) “copper theft barometer”, the stealing of copper cost the economy between $415 million and $581 million per year. The South Africa power company Eskom is reported as spending roughly $166 million a year to replace stolen copper cables. The stealing of cables have also been blamed for the several deaths due to electric shocks and burns arising from engineers carrying out repair works on vandalized sub-stations and copper cables.

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Fighting the Menace

The fight against energy infrastructure theft and vandalism is being addressed seriously from diverse angles by state authorities, energy firms, and the public as a whole.

In South Africa for instance, the fight against infrastructure theft is being dealt with through intelligence-driven investigations. While industry players coordinate to fight the menace, the courts are also handing out significant sentences to perpetrators. Eskom is substituting copper conductors with aluminum, embossing unique markings on all aluminum conductors, replacing all normal bolts on pylons with anti-theft bolts, engraving support lattices on steel pylons with Eskom’s name on the steel. The power utility is also installing alarms on overhead lines so that if the line is cut or tampered with, the alarm triggered in the control room and the reaction unit is immediately dispatched to the location.

Shell Nigeria is partnering local communities to effectively patrol pipelines’ rights-of-way through direct surveillance and Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMoU) surveillance, proactively engaging government security agencies to prevent crude theft and vandalism. Shell is also undertaking awareness campaigns to educate community members, surveillance contractors and general public of the requirements of a 1990 Pipeline Act which prohibits any third-party activities 100ft from existing oil and gas right-of-way.

In the U.S. and Canada, security standards have been framed to help protect public safety, the environment and critical infrastructure from acts of vandalism and sabotage. The standards have been designed as a tool for producers to evaluate site security, introduce security solutions, and execute security incident management solutions as well as effective emergency response programs.

The oil giant BP, is among the list of companies using unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology or drones for the purposes of monitoring and mapping infrastructure such as pipelines and electric transmission lines. The drones enables the companies to get a view without having to send crews out on foot. Aside from the convenience and time-savings, UAVs takes care of safety issues; for instance where terrain is dangerous, around water crossings or where wildlife is prevalent.

Ghana could learn from these and many other tried and tested examples to fight the menace which remains as a national security challenge, due to the pivotal role of energy in the socio-economic development of the country.

 

Written by Paa Kwasi Anamua Sakyi, Institute for Energy Security ©2019

The writer has over 22 years of experience in the technical and management areas of Oil and Gas Management, Banking and Finance, and Mechanical Engineering; working in both the Gold Mining and Oil sector. He is currently working as an Oil Trader, Consultant, and Policy Analyst in the global energy sector. He serves as a resource to many global energy research firms, including Argus Media.

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