A recent ABC News special focusing on a petroleum refinery complex in the north-central Oklahoma community of Cushing spotlighted the facility's important role in establishing gasoline prices in the United States.
But the Cushing refinery complex--which is said to have the capacity to take in more than 1 million barrels of oil a day, making it perhaps the major crossroads for oil production in America--is hardly the only piece of important oil infrastructure in Oklahoma, which relies heavily on the energy business for its economic health. Tulsa's west side, for instance, long has served an integral role in meeting national energy demands, as well. If those facilities were to fall victim to a terrorist attack or natural disaster, the ramifications likely would be substantial.
A Feb. 25 report from the University of Central Oklahoma Policy Institute authored by Mickey Hepner cited U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis figures that put the industry's impact on Oklahoma's Gross State Product at $19 billion in 2007, the most recent year for which such data were available. That amounted to 13.6 percent of the GSP. The report also states that the oil and gas industry generates more than 265,000 jobs in Oklahoma and raises the state's personal income by $15.6 billion, or more than $4,400 per person.
"Obviously, it's a concern for us because of the economic impact that would have on this state," said Kerry Pettingill, director of the state Office of Homeland Security. "We understand the ramifications that would have not just in Oklahoma, but nationwide if production is stopped in the flow of oil or if natural gas supplies are disrupted."
Pettingill said even though the creation of his office was a specific outgrowth of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said the potential vulnerability of the state's energy industry has long been on the radar of state and business officials.
"Even before 9/11, I believe the industry itself was mindful of the impact on the nation and the world any disruption of energy would have," he said.
But he sounded just as concerned about the impact a natural disaster could have on energy facilities, as demonstrated by what took place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005. With a number of Gulf Coast refineries and drilling platforms having been knocked out of production by the storm, oil prices skyrocketed across the United States, taking months to return to normal.
Of course, Oklahoma facilities are far less susceptible to hurricane damage than those on the Gulf Coast. But as everyone knows, severe weather and flooding are no strangers to this part of the country. Any disruption in the flow of oil or natural gas out of the state could have similar consequences, considering the Cushing complex--the world's largest commercial oil storage hub--has added a number of tanks recently that brought its storage capacity to almost 50 million barrels, according to a Reuters report. And industry analysts say rising Canadian production is likely to make the Cushing complex even more important in the future.
"Obviously, we're committed to all of that," Pettingill said of his office's disaster preparedness, citing the extensive network of pipelines that carry oil and natural gas into and out of Oklahoma.
Pettingill cited another potential area of concern. A simple lack of maintenance on such facilities, he said, also could lead to a disruption in service.
"All of those people in the energy business have always thought in the back in their minds about disruptions, whether they're natural disasters or man made, or even maintenance issues that can cause disruptions," he said. "I don't think that's anything 9/11 brought about. But that may have highlighted the need for security."
Pettingill's department works with the private sector to maintain the operation of the state's energy infrastructure.
"Our role is being a good partner with them, determining any particular need they have and determining a response to something they might require to protect a facility," he said, adding that his office also helps formulate the potential response should a disaster unfold at a major energy facility and whether the appropriate personnel are present to handle it.
While he was unable to talk about the specific security precautions that exist to protect the state's energy infrastructure, Pettingill said his office has taken the leading role in sharing and disseminating information that comes from the federal level among members of the industry. His office constantly encourages energy industry employees at all levels to be on the lookout for anything unusual and report anything suspicious, he said.
"If we were to receive any information about a particular type of threat that is sector specific," his office would be responsible for conveying that information to members of the state's energy industry, Pettingill said, adding that a terrorist attack on an energy facility elsewhere in the world likely would result in an advisory being issued about the possibility of such an event occurring here at a similar facility.
"That would include what measures could have been taken to prevent it from happening," he said.
Pettingill said the concerns of his office extend far beyond the state's energy industry, since Oklahoma has numerous military bases and other sensitive industries that potentially could serve as targets.
"We discuss security measures with various companies. We have discussions with them on what they have, and obviously, we would look at any gaps and fill any gaps," he said, though he noted there are limits to how much government resources can and should be used in protecting private business interests.
"You get into some narrow fields, so it's somewhat tricky," he said. "But as you get into it, you find it's very necessary. The big thing we do is have an open dialogue."
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