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For decades, oil workers and the companies that employ them have operated under the threat of hostility.
Kidnapping, sporadic attacks and raids on both offshore platforms and oil fields, especially overseas, have forced oil and gas companies to spend heavily in order to protect their employees and their assets.
The deadliest attack in at least five years came in January, when a group of militants led by a former leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb stormed a natural-gas processing facility owned by BP in Algeria. The raid left more than 38 oil workers and hostages dead, illustrating the risk in developing and extracting the world’s fossil fuels, which often are targeted for the economic and political power associated with them.
The severity of threats such as those in Algeria are hard to imagine in the United States, but as the domestic-energy boom evolves and drilling continues to ramp up in shale plays across the country, oil and gas companies here face unique security challenges, too.
In all, there are more than 32 shale plays nationwide. According to oil-field services company Baker Hughes, there were 1,769 oil rigs drilling across the country in early May.
“We know that more companies will come to Ohio for all the oil and gas underneath the ground. As they come here to get those resources, there’s going to be a big push and a big need for personnel to staff and protect those rigs,” said Edwin Lard, chief executive officer of the Diplomatic Protection Training Institute in Youngstown. “I don’t want to say it’s common sense, but to us it makes total sense, because when you spend millions of dollars on a rig, you’re going to want to protect it.”
For Ohio’s Utica Shale, drilling has really only just begun when compared to other shale plays and oil fields in Texas, for instance.
But the security challenges that oil and gas companies have long faced in the Lone Star state have prepared them for what lies ahead here in Ohio as the Utica is developed.
Oil and gas drilling rigs and production sites historically have been a target for thieves, leading to organized theft rings that pillage everything from drill bits, copper and even crude oil to individuals that steal costly hand tools so they can be fenced for a profit at a local pawn shop.
In 2009, 10 people were arrested in Odessa, Texas, after the Permian Basin Oilfield Theft Task Force, a special unit organized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, conducted a seven-month investigation that uncovered they were involved in the theft of about $2 million worth of oil and gas condensate from producers in three West Texas counties.
A survey covering 31 of the top oil- and gas-producing counties in Texas, conducted by the task force and released shortly before the bust, found that theft at production sites totaled about $78 million annually.
More-recent studies from producers nationwide have pegged the total theft at about $1 billion annually, but experts disagree on that total.
Though rig security is primarily established to deter theft, domestic production sites face a suit of other challenges, including disruptive activism and bomb threats, among other things.
On Brunstetter Road in Lordstown, Houston-based Halcon was forced to call in security detail from the Lordstown Police.
Halcon’s drilling site was about 500 feet from the Westwood Mobile Home Park, where 800 people lived within earshot of Halcon’s operations. The site’s proximity to some 300 homes sparked daily questions about when drilling would end and prompted some activists from the Mahoning Valley to threaten disruptive sit-ins.
“I don’t know why they decided to call us, but I would bet the mobile-home park had a lot to do with it,” said Lordstown Police Chief Brent Milhoan. “We had officers in a marked car posted there 24 hours per day, each working four-hour shifts. In fact, I recently got an email from Halcon saying they were very pleased with our service, and in the future they wouldn’t hesitate to call again.”
Halcon, along with other oil and gas companies operating in the region, were reluctant to discuss their security procedures with Shale Sheet for fear of revealing how they protect their assets. Milhoan said the company paid the officers individually and reimbursed the village for using the police cruisers.
He added that the company was using a private security firm from Pennsylvania before it contacted Lordstown Police. After drilling operations were completed, Halcon requested contact information for other police chiefs in Warren and North Jackson. Milhoan guessed that Halcon preferred a police presence because officers are often better trained and provide a greater show of force than private security firms.
Even more concerning to oil and gas companies are bomb threats, several of which have occurred across the state and region recently. They not only threaten staff at production sites, but bring operations to a stand still when companies are forced to evacuate employees and call in authorities to sweep drilling platforms and the land around them for bombs or other devices.
In March, a natural-gas liquids processing plant being constructed by Dominion in West Virginia received a bomb threat for the second time in as many months, forcing 700 construction workers to leave the site for several hours, while law-enforcement officials cleared the area.
Security firms advise oil and gas companies to equip their production sites with updated surveillance systems to deter unauthorized entry. Remote- controlled observation, combined with 24-hour security and other high-tech gadgets, such as thermal cameras, can help control theft and other threats.
Companies often post signs as well, alerting potential criminals that all equipment is marked and traceable. Some firms even suggest installing GPS sensors on valuable equipment, such as hand tools that can cost more than $10,000 each.
For Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy, protecting “people, property and information” is a crucial part of its business, said spokeswoman Lynn Seay.
The company has contracted with Florida-based G4S Secure Solutions since 2011 for protection at all its production operations. G4S provides about 600 security personnel for Consol, Seay said.
“The size of the facility, and phase of operation, dictates the number of security personnel,” she said. “At a minimum, there is always a security presence.”
In the event of hostility or violence, each Consol site follows a comprehensive emergency-readiness plan, which includes a section on bomb threats. Generally, Seay said the protocol follows a “threat decision tree, which dictates the need to evacuate or not.”
At any time, she said, an employee has the power to stop operations if they feel safety is a concern. If a bomb threat is made, a detailed and thorough site inspection would be completed, and law enforcement could be contacted.
Although G4S has the ability to provide armed officers, Consol has elected to use unarmed officers at its sites.
Lard, the chief executive of the Diplomatic Protection Training Institute, said providing personnel with the training necessary to equip themselves with firearms will be essential for security firms in Ohio looking to provide rig protection to companies operating in the state.
DPTI and Cuyahoga Community College recently partnered to offer a 240-hour, six-month course that prepares individuals for a career in resource and infrastructure protection.
“We took a model based off embassy protection, which is easily transferable to asset protection,” Lard said. “It’s the same concept, whether it’s a school, building or rig, you have to maintain access control and have people trained to do this properly.”
Lard said he recognized a need for more security services in Ohio that can provide rig protection. At the time the partnership was formed, Lard said there were more than 400 rig security jobs available in Ohio.
In addition to acclimating students to high-stress situations, they’re taught counter-terrorism tactics.
“When you think of a rig in Ohio, it’s not in danger from al-Qaida, but we see more groups protesting fracking,” he said. “We’re thinking more along the lines of domestic terrorism and what that means for the company and the safety of the community.”
Students that graduate from the program, Lard said, will not only be equipped to handle guns and high-stress situations, but they also will be proactive employees, trained to be aware of their surroundings and looking for any “red flags” so they can put a stop to any disruptive activity before it starts.
Already, Consol, for example, requires its security personnel to take 52 hours or more of additional training in security policy, practices and procedures before they arrive for work.
“Right now, at a lot of these wells, there’s just a guy that stands at the gate — that might not be enough going forward,” Lard said. “Security is an emerging industry, and there’s a lot of things out there that are wide open. Unlike overseas, oil and gas rigs are things that we don’t think need protection on a daily basis. They’re easy targets, and we want to provide people that are physically capable of protecting them.”