Green Group Warns Keystone XL May be Vulnerable to Terrorist Attack. But Will the Warning Backfire?
NextGen report could lead to a blowback against peaceful protesters
NextGen Climate, the environmental advocacy group launched by billionaire activist Tom Steyer, says the Keystone XL pipeline, if built, would be vulnerable to a terrorist attack. In a recently published report authored by a former Navy Seal, the organization argues that because of the pipeline’s high profile it would be an attractive “soft” target. It’s an odd argument for an environmental organization to be making — and one that may make it harder for activists to do their work.
NextGen’s report is essentially calling for the militarization of the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure in which photographing, protesting, or visiting gas wells or pipelines could be interpreted as a threat to national security. Ultimately, though it may not be NextGen’s intention, this means less transparency and public oversight of projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. It also means citizen watchdogs are at greater legal risk if they decide to photograph or document oil and gas drilling activity.
Photo by Stuart Isett/Fortune Green
NextGen Climate’s “threat assessment” peddles an argument often made by the oil and gas industry itself — that because of ever looming threats to critical infrastructure the vigilant policing of rigs, pipelines, and refineries is necessary. “The very nature of Keystone XL’s newsworthiness, should it ever be built, increases its attractiveness as a target to terrorists,” according to the report. “That simple fact … should clue in pipeline owners and government officials to the very real possibility of intentional attack. They should plan, prepare, and regulate accordingly.”
Similar arguments have been used to justify the now-routine sharing of intelligence between local, state, and federal law enforcement and the fossil fuel industry. The Department of Homeland Security’s Critical Infrastructure Partnership Advisory Council has a special oil and natural gas sub sector which facilitates communication between law enforcement and industry. The FBI has its own Oil and Natural Gas Crime Issues Special Interest Group , described by the agency as “a strategic partnership established to promote the timely and effective exchange of information between the FBI and the US oil and natural gas private sector.” In 2010 the FBI issued an intelligence bulletin warning of the threat of “environmental extremism” to the energy industry. In addition, private sector “crime committees,” sometimes used to target protesters, have sprung up in areas where active drilling is taking place. Likewise, railroad companies have used the specter of a terrorist attack to resist calls for greater transparency about the shipment of highly explosive Bakken crude. The railroad companies claim that information about when and where the oil is shipped must remain confidential because of security threats.
Despite the report’s lack of evidence to support the claim that Keystone would be an attractive target — it fails to acknowledge that the pipeline is owned by a Canadian company and glosses over the fact that it would run through the sparsely populated middle of the country — the press has lapped it up. Huffington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek, Climate Progress, Reuters and others have unquestioningly restated the report’s findings. Reporters seem especially eager to note that the report’s author, David Cooper, was a member of Navy Seal Team 6, the unit that took down Osama Bin Laden. Supposedly this lends credibility to his assessment. “He was command master chief of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group ,” a NextGen spokesperson, Matt Casey, wrote in an email. “[He was] involved with or helped plann every major operation by that unit in the last 10 years, including the Bin Laden raid.” Impressive, to be sure. But it’s unclear why being a Navy Seal makes Cooper an expert on energy infrastructure security.
No reporters have questioned whether Cooper’s findings could be used by industry to deter environmental activists from engaging in non-violent civil disobedience. So, is this a smart strategy for an environmental organization to be using? Or will it backfire? Some environmental activists worry it’s the latter.
“This is the same sort of vulgar scaremongering used by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to target everyone from undocumented immigrants to the Muslim community to environmental activists,” says Scott Parkin, an organizer with the direct action group Rising Tide North America. “The bottom line is that we need to keep tar sands in the ground. We don't do that by scaring the public with threats of possible terrorist attacks on oil pipelines. We do it by organizing bold and effective movements to stop Big Oil in its tracks."
In an email, David Cooper made a distinction between security and policing. “It [the pipeline] doesn’t need to be policed,” he wrote. “It needs to be secured against terrorist attack. Just as people confuse safety and security, the question here confuses security and policing.” He did not, however, elaborate on how the pipeline should be secured. The cost of doing so, as Cooper himself notes, would not fall on TransCanada but on the US government, i.e. taxpayers. “They [TransCanada] are not responsible for protecting the pipeline from a terrorist attack,” Cooper writes. “The burden of protecting Americans and their interests ultimately falls to local, state and federal governments.”
NextGen spokesperson Mike Casey did not answer questions about whether the organization had discussed the potential for the report’s findings to be used against environmental activists, and instead re-iterated the report’s key finding. “The fact it [the pipeline] is in a remote area is precisely what makes it a soft target,” he wrote in second email. “Ease of ingress and egress. The rupture at three critical nodes could contaminate the farmland and surrounding waterways that are drinking water supplies for 10s of millions of people.”
Cooper’s threat assessment involved traveling to an undisclosed location along a pipeline near the proposed Keystone XL route (known as the Keystone 1 pipeline), where he was able to walk up to a pump station and take photos for more than 15 minutes. Cooper described it as, “a walk-through that could just as easily have been the actual terrorist mission.” The report is peppered with military speak: the methodology used is known as a “Red Cell” approach, whereby all information about the selected target is gathered from publicly available sources; the site visit was a “cold shot,” done with no advance preparation or planning; and the proposed pipeline a “significant tactical problem.” The redacted portions of the report give it an air of secretiveness even though precise locations would seem irrelevant given the length of the pipeline.
So what happens when Cooper finally reaches his destination somewhere in the Northern Great Plains? Not much. “I was not approached, questioned or even noticed at any point,” he writes, seemingly surprised and disappointed by the company’s failure to guard against a terrorist attack.
Cooper never bothers to explain what kind of terrorist group would be interested in attacking the Keystone XL pipeline. Russian separatists? ISIS extremists?
Here lies the weakness at the heart of Cooper’s analysis: TransCanada doesn’t see terrorism as a threat to its project and protecting the pipeline isn’t its responsibility, as Cooper himself acknowledges. That explains why the company isn’t going to great lengths to guard against a possible terrorist attack. TransCanada, along with other oil and gas companies, is less concerned with securing its physical infrastructure than it is with protecting its political influence and public image, both of which are threatened by environmental activists. As TransCanada has demonstrated through its collaboration with law enforcement — about which Earth Island Journal has reported extensively — the biggest threat to its business is environmental opposition, not some kind of Al-Qaeda sleeper cell in Omaha.
TransCanada views the thousands of people who have taken a stand against the pipeline — from ranchers and farmers in the Plains, to environmental activists and students across the country — as its primary foe. This is why TransCanada is keeping an eye on protesters — not terrorists — and collaborating closely with law enforcement in Nebraska and Oklahoma.
And this is precisely why Cooper’s report could be used against the environmental community. TransCanada has already suggested that environmental activists should be prosecuted under anti-terror laws . Company employees have met with local, state, and federal law enforcement (including the FBI) along the proposed pipeline route to make their case. It wouldn’t take much for TransCanada to point to Cooper’s report as evidence to support a crackdown on citizen monitoring of pipeline construction, photographing of pump stations and seismic testing, and acts of protest or civil disobedience. That the report fails to even acknowledge this possibility is a glaring omission.
In fact, the experience of many activists fighting oil and gas development reveals how the industry works to target its political opponents. State troopers in Pennsylvania and New York have interrogated activists who legally photographed drilling sites and compressor stations. The state police likely were tipped off by the oil and gas industry. Though there isn’t a shred of evidence linking anti-fracking groups to a few unsuccessful attempts to set off explosives at well sites in Pennsylvania, the press, with the apparent help of the oil and gas industry, has made that argument. A February headline in a Williamsport, PA paper is exemplary: “Ecoterror target: Gas companies bolster security in response to threats.” The fact that there is no evidence linking environmental groups to the attacks is buried deep in the article.
In East Houston, one of the most heavily polluted parts of the country, activists are routinely harassed and sometimes interrogated for photographing (always from public property) oil refineries and chemical plants. In Oklahoma, anti-pipeline activists have been slapped with “terrorism hoax” charges for unfurling a banner that sent glitter cascading through the glass office building of Devon Energy. In Texas anti-fracking activists, including a university professor, have been questioned by the FBI. And of course there’s a long history of radical environmental and animal rights activists being prosecuted under anti-terror laws.
If anything, Cooper’s report contributes to a sense of alarmism surrounding the threat of terrorism in the United States; one section is titled, “A catastrophic attack would be easy to execute.” This will hardly help environmental activists as they plan their next move in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and other infrastructure projects on the horizon. The unredacted report, which was circulated to top lawmakers and a US State Department Special Envoy, is clearly intended to influence those in key decision-making positions. In his final paragraph Cooper asserts that, “If a position can’t be reasonably defended, then in general it shouldn’t be taken.” In other words, if the Keystone pipeline isn’t 100 percent safe from a terrorist attack, it shouldn’t be built. If we apply this logic to all high profile energy infrastructure projects in the US (and, at least by scale, the vast solar farms in the Mojave Desert are no different from fossil fuel infrastructure), we will find ourselves living in a truly militarized state. This is something environmental organizations need to contest, not encourage.
Cooper’s distinction between security and policing would likely be lost on the oil and gas industry. Indeed, as noted above, “national security” is often a euphemism for surveillance, spying, and intelligence gathering. Instead of crying foul, TransCanada should be thanking NextGen Climate for its work.