Saudi-style drone attacks not seen as major risk to U.S., experts say

Reuters, AFP-JIJI

The style of attack used against oil plants in Saudi Arabia that knocked out half of the country’s production on Saturday is unlikely to be a risk in the United States, energy and security experts say.

“The U.S. oil industry has a lot of redundancy,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, senior fellow for energy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

U.S. refineries go offline often, after accidents or storms, with little impact to the market, Jaffe said. Even production in the country’s biggest oil field, the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, is spread across thousands of wells in a 75,000-square-mile (194,250-square-kilometer) region. The kind of gas-oil separation facility hit in the attacks in Saudi Arabia is done in smaller plants located across U.S. oil fields.

“It’s pretty hard to imagine some group having people here and they’re going to fly a drone over the Houston Ship Channel or over Newark and somehow it’s not going to be noticed,” Jaffe said. “Could you knock out one company’s crude processing unit and throw them offline? I suppose. You’d have to go down to Midland, Texas, and get away with it.”

“I would be more concerned about cyber vulnerability,” Jaffe added.

The United States has more of a geographic buffer than Saudi Arabia and lacks hostile neighbors, said Ben West, security analyst with the intelligence firm Stratfor. The most vulnerable infrastructure — pipelines — can be repaired rather quickly, West said.

“Even if there were an attack, it’s unlikely to knock out half the U.S. oil and gas production,” West said. “I think Iran is much more likely to be able to successfully carry out a cyberattack than a cruise missile or drone attack, and it’s still an unlikely scenario.”

Security for U.S. energy infrastructure was tightened in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to include tighter inspection standards and better background checks of workers, said Henry Willis, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

“We do know that once someone figures out a way, others learn,” said Willis. “I imagine if you’re responsible for facilities security and you haven’t done it already, you’re assessing how you account for drone threats.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said it will invite international experts including from the United Nations and others to participate in investigating the attack on its oil facilities and called on the world to condemn those behind it, its foreign ministry said on Monday.

Preliminary investigations showed that Iranian weapons were used in the attack, which damaged the world’s biggest crude processing plant, the ministry statement said.

“The kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks,” it added.

The ministry said the attack above all targeted global oil supplies and called it an extension of previous hostile acts against oil pumping stations in May.

The head of Amnesty International warned Monday that a U.S. military intervention in response to the attack would only aggravate suffering in the Middle East.

The rights group’s secretary-general, Kumi Naidoo, said the world instead should redouble efforts to end the devastating violence in Yemen, where a Saudi-led air campaign has been striking Iranian-linked Houthi rebels.

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