If reporting on the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Even so, we didn’t see this one coming.
Hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, a climate change activist and staunch opponent of the prospective 1,179-mile pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Cushing, Okla., has hired retired Navy SEAL chief David “Dave” Cooper to assess how vulnerable the Keystone XL might be to deliberate sabotage. In a 14-page report made public today (but redacted to keep it from being a playbook for aspiring terrorists), Cooper concludes that a small group of evildoers could easily cause a catastrophic spill of millions of gallons of diluted bitumen, or tar sands crude, from the Keystone XL. They could do it with as little as four pounds of commercial-grade, improvised explosives. Cooper even did a dry run, using the completed Keystone I pipeline as a proxy; he hung out at a critical valve station long enough to content himself that he could have planted some explosives and left without a hitch.
In what Cooper deems “the most likely scenario,” a single attack could result in 1.2 million gallons of Alberta crude tarring Nebraska farms and waterways. He calculated this using published emergency shutdown response times and pipeline flow forecasts from the government and TransCanada (TRP:CN), the company that wants to build and operate the line. A coordinated attack at multiple locations, Cooper suggests, could trigger a 7.24 million gallon flood.
“While these numbers might be shocking, at least to some,” Cooper writes, “the vulnerability of our energy infrastructure has been there for some time. The shock is how little it’s been discussed. A coordinated attack at several critical points would not only wreak havoc … it would likely overwhelm the existing engineering capability needed to clean it up.”
The Keystone XL as a terrorist target came up as a concern three years ago and still pops up from time to time in blogs and letters to the editor but has been overwhelmed by other debates. Pipelines, being very long and automated, are almost by definition difficult to defend, and plenty of long-standing ones could make terror targets, too. Certainly, there’s precedent for pipelines as a bad guy’s “weapon of choice“—in India, Turkey, Pakistan, Colombia, Nigeria, Mexico, and especially Iraq. With Iraq, Cooper says, “the analogy [to Keystone] breaks down because we were involved in a full-scale war. But it still highlights something: The softness of targets such as these oil pipelines and the attractiveness of hitting them.”
Cooper, now a consultant after a brief stint at the Navy SEAL Foundation, says he was intrigued to take on this project for Steyer’s nonprofit, NextGen Climate, because of the shooting of a California substation in April 2013 (no arrests so far) and a recent FERC report, highlighted in the Wall Street Journal, revealing that attacks on nine U.S. substations could leave most of the country in the dark.
“We have this habit of sometimes not seeing the signs, or not wanting to see the signs,” Cooper says. “So the real purpose of me doing this is to get this information in the hands of the administration and the American public so they can really make a more informed decision. And you know, I don’t have a position on the pipeline one way or another. I would be the first to tell you I have four boys, all of whom play sports; I drive them around in an SUV, so I need the oil as well. However, we still need to consider something we haven’t been talking about, and that is security.”
Cooper’s Steyer-sponsored hit job comes as the President waits for the State Department to sift through thousands of public comments and advise him whether the pipeline is in the national interest—formally, the National Interest Determination.
Cooper is a highly decorated, 25-year veteran of the special forces and ran the elite unit known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group that’s far better known as “SEAL Team Six.” He declines to give details, but he served in Afghanistan and Yemen and was in the unit’s command during the rescue of Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips off Somalia and the killing of Osama bin Laden. He was the top-ranking enlisted SEAL at Dam Neck Annex, in Virginia Beach, until his retirement in 2012.
Made aware of Cooper’s report, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment. TransCanada, the Calgary company that runs the Keystone pipeline network and wants to build its final leg (the XL), declined to comment on the numbers and math Cooper used in his assessment, but questioned its usefulness.
“There are 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the U.S.—enough to circle the globe 100 times. Keystone XL is just 1,100 miles,” says TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard, responding to the report. “Did Tom Steyer study other pipelines to assess their threats of attack as well? If he were truly concerned about the safety of Americans then a broader assessment of all critical infrastructure would have been more appropriate.”
Howard says that Cooper’s comparison of the Keystone “to above-ground pipelines in Iraq is misleading and is comparing apples to oranges. Pipelines in North America, and the agencies charged to protect the public, are different than those in Iraq or other war zones. Unfortunately, Mr. Steyer would rather invest in a war against Keystone XL and forcing Americans to continue relying on oil from the Middle East and other hostile regions, instead of safe, reliable crude oil from a friendly neighbor in Canada.”
Cooper appreciates that the debate over Keystone XL has been intense, and not everyone will appreciate his provocative report. He says he “absolutely” considers his threat assessment of the Keystone XL an act of patriotism.
“I spent a decade-plus risking my life for my country and my teammates, and they did the same. We did so willingly,” he says. “We are now asking the American public to take some serious risks that they don’t know about, and I don’t think that’s right.”