Drone attacks on oil facilities are contributing to an escalation of global geopolitical tensions.
Norway, Europe’s number one gas supplier and a major global oil producer, deployed its navy, air force and soldiers over the last few days to patrol offshore petroleum fields and onshore terminals in response to the Nord Stream pipeline leaks. The European Union believes that the gas leaks were sabotaged. The EU has threatened a strong retaliation if its energy infrastructure is intentionally damaged.
As part of a broader security ramp-up, Norwegian police placed drone detection systems on offshore oil and gas platforms. Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority has repeatedly urged oil companies to be more vigilant over unidentified drones seen flying near offshore oil and gas platforms, warning they could pose a risk of accidents or deliberate attacks.
The situation in Norway is part of a disturbing pattern. Oil companies worldwide have reported sightings of unidentified drones at an accelerated rate.
This increase in unauthorised UAV usage poses new challenges for oil and gas companies.
What starts in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East
A rash of drone attacks on oil facilities across the Middle East set a precedent for what the rest of the world faces today. Oil prices jumped to a seven-year high in January after Iran-aligned Houthis attacked targets in the United Arab Emirates with drones.
One emerging capability of drone operators is ‘swarming,’ where multiple systems are used to achieve a shared objective. An example of this was the attack on Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in 2019, which resulted in the global price of oil rising by 20%.
According to new research, 75% of the 23 recorded attacks over the last five years on Middle East oil and gas facilities in the Gulf used drones to hit their target. The data, which analyses eighty-eight major incidents, suggests that UAVs are more difficult for air defence systems to intercept than conventional missiles.
And because so many countries rely heavily on oil, a surge in oil prices often negatively impacts local economies.
What is behind the rise of drone usage?
Since DIY drones are now relatively cheap and easy to assemble compared to other military hardware, groups like ISIS and the Houthis rebels can wreak havoc on oil production and refinement.
Research firm Stratistics MRC estimates that the shipment of commercial and consumer drones will increase by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21% over the next five years.
Another factor in the escalating use of drones is that oil fields and installations are typically located in remote areas. In contrast, oil or gas pipelines span long distances – sometimes crossing national borders. As a result, securing such critical infrastructures is complex.
Such highly vulnerable critical infrastructures are proliferating. Asia has the most future petroleum refineries, with eighty-eight new facilities planned or under construction across APAC. North America intends to add ten new petroleum refineries. Meanwhile, China has the second-largest refining capacity in the world and is predicted to overtake the United States as the world’s top oil refiner.
Threats against oil facilities worldwide are here to stay. It is incumbent upon relevant authorities to secure the stability of their nation’s economies and their civilian populations by considering deploying a fully developed and integrated command and control solution.
Such modular, scalable, customisable anti-drone systems are the best way to neutralise rapidly evolving threats by making it possible to anticipate and rapidly respond to unlawful drone incursions.