Albertan oil fields vulnerable to attack, warns expert

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As the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are busy making arrests in the investigation of the two EnCana gas-pipeline bombings in British Columbia, national media commentator and terrorism expert Mercedes Stephenson warned that Albertan oil and gas installations could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack. She spoke at a Calgary conference for emergency officials Oct. 18.

Currently, there are 2,000 unsecured locations for gas around Calgary alone that lack security officers and cameras.

Economic terrorism--attacking a country by damaging the economy--would have large ramifications for the energy-starved consumers and businesses in the United States, Stephenson explained. She said the Alberta economy has become a major economic power in Canada since Ontario's manufacturing sector is falling. Alberta supplies the western U.S. with more than 95 per cent of its energy, including natural gas pumped from B.C. Sabotage would be paralyzing to both Canada and the U.S.

"Remember the 2003 blackout on the east seaboard ­-- that would be the kind of scenario you would be looking at in large swaths of the western U.S.," said Stephenson. "The consequences of losing the fuel for your energy is no lights, no air conditioning or no heating, ATM access, gas pumps, public transit, et cetera . . . Not to mention the mass panic that would be incited if the lights went out on the west coast due to a massive loss of electricity."

Stephenson pointed out terrorists would go after the oil infrastructure instead of Calgary or Edmonton because terrorists can get a "bang for their buck," with a low cost and low risk attack.

"Most attacks against the pipelines in history are from angry individuals, not organized terrorists like al-Qaida," she said. "You don't need sophisticated weaponry (you can buy this stuff at your local hardware store) and you don't kill a lot of innocent people, which both might be enticing for some attackers who wouldn't be willing to carry out a mass casualty attack, but punish corporations or the government."

She added that al-Qaida has threatened Alberta's pipelines in the past.

While the vulnerability of the pipelines is high, the industry may not perceive the risk of significant attacks as high enough to justify the cost of securing every part of the pipelines, claimed Stephenson. Clashes over responsibilities also play a role, she noted, because oil and gas companies own the pipelines, but the natural resources are the province's responsibility. Stephenson warned that while everyone is busy arguing about who should pay the bill, the funding is not produced and the oil industry is vulnerable in the recession.

"It would be a tempting time to strike because the economy is already weakened and consumer confidence is shaky," she said.