OTTAWA/CALGARY (Reuters) - Canadian energy companies and officials share intelligence, scour social media and send up surveillance drones but even so they say preventing a disruption to the country’s vast pipeline network is near impossible and each side wants the other to do more.
This week, five oil pipelines carrying Canadian crude were halted in the United States in an audacious act by protesters opposed to oil sands development and a proposed new pipeline in North Dakota.
The coordinated attacks in isolated locations near the Canadian border sparked a flurry of exchanges among pipeline operators, police, Canada’s national energy regulator and a U.S. counterpart to assess the impact.
While they quickly consulted about the risk of the attacks spreading, the disruption focused attention on how Canada would deal with an assault on a huge network of pipelines crisscrossing a country with the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves.
“Pipelines are so long and so linear, they are like a border, you cannot oversee every part of them.” said Patrick Keys, TransCanada vice president of Canadian Gas Pipelines Commercial West.
Five years ago, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said in leaked documents that it saw a greater risk to infrastructure from environmentalists than from religiously inspired groups, a claim that raised some eyebrows.
Richard Fadden, who ran Canada’s main spy agency until 2013 and was national security advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau until June, said that in a country the size of Canada, “lowering the threat to absolute zero is impossible.”
But he said there was scope for improvement, such as better use of technology and surveillance drones.
“Those parts of the national infrastructure that attract controversy become more worrisome and clearly pipelines fall in this area. So we worry about it,” said the former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
“It’s not a single pipeline that is going to endanger the national security. If it happens more than once, if there’s a trend, that’s a different kettle of fish.”
But while police and pipeline companies both want better security, they look to each other to step up.
Energy companies already use surveillance cameras, helicopters, and remote sensors as well as drones to monitor some 119,000 km (74,000 miles) of pipelines across Canada, and have an agreement to collaborate during an emergency. The pipelines, most of which are underground, carry 3.4 million barrels of crude oil a day.
But while pipeline companies and law enforcement authorities share intelligence about perceived threats, corporate security has little intelligence-gathering capabilities, Canadian Energy Pipeline Association President Chris Bloomer said.
“They know who these opponents are, they can monitor the websites, but there is tons of traffic, it’s hard to get to, and they are going to be operating in the dark corners,” he said.
That’s where energy companies would like to get more help from the RCMP and CSIS, said Jeffrey Monaghan, a criminologist at Carleton University whose research focuses on security. He said the two sides work together and meet regularly, but there is friction between the two.
“The pipeline companies are spending a lot of money on security and they have a very direct strategic economic interest in trying to get the RCMP to do more,” said Monaghan. “The RCMP has been muting their (threat) language because they don’t want to get trapped being private security guard.”
A federal police source said Thursday that “radical environmentalists aren’t on our radar at the moment but they are a possible terror group”.
But collaboration on one side can seem like collusion from another, and greater cooperation is met with resistance from rights groups who argue the job of the police is to serve and protect Canadians, not provide security for energy companies.
Last year, Canada’s spy watchdog investigated complaints from civil liberty and community groups that CSIS and the RCMP were gathering intelligence on environmental activists and sharing it with energy companies.
A TransCanada spokesman declined to discuss specific meetings or briefings but said they were in “fairly regular discussions” with law enforcement agencies about infrastructure security.
“We make no bones about the fact this relationship does and needs to exist,” said Mark Cooper.
Pipeline companies, meanwhile, are bracing for the next round of clashes.
Kinder Morgan said it is in “deep conversations” with the RCMP and will have specific guidelines for contractors slated to build a proposed expansion where it is expecting blockades and protests at the British Columbia site.
“We are planning from both a safety and security standpoint,” said Ian Anderson, president of the firm’s Canadian operations. “I would be naive if I didn’t expect (protests) ... It’s when it goes beyond that we will have to be prepared.”
Additional reporting by Leah Schnurr and Andrea Hopkins in Ottawa; Editing by James Dalgleish