US Moves To Help Gulf Nations Protect Energy Sites

ABU DHABI/LONDON, Dec 22, 2006 (Dow Jones Newswires)

A quiet, U.S. government campaign to boost anti-terrorism measures at major Middle East oil installations may be running into resistance from some Persian Gulf governments, who have long sought to distance themselves publicly from any direct American involvement in regional oil issues.

Last month, American officials met in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with government and oil-industry officials to discuss closer energy-security cooperation and to offer U.S. advice and expertise on how to better protect infrastructure like pipelines, processing plants and terminals.

"All we want to do is engage and say, have you really thought seriously about what would happen 'if,'" said Bruce A. Averill, who represented the State Department at the meetings. "Are you really happy with your security measures? Here are standards that we know work."

Other U.S. officials are more blunt, saying the initiative is aimed at beefing up what they believe are insufficient energy-security precautions in the region. In February, Saudi security officials narrowly foiled a brazen attack on a big oil-processing facility in the kingdom, stoking energy-security fears.

The new U.S. push was triggered by the foiled attack in February on Saudi Arabia's giant oil installation at Abqaiq, the world's biggest oil processing facility that churns out enough crude to meet 8% of world oil consumption daily.

Although the attack was thwarted by Saudi security forces, it sent global oil prices soaring and reinforced a long-standing nightmare in global oil markets - and the U.S. - of a big Saudi supply disruption or one elsewhere in the region.

Security measures in the Persian Gulf "are not adequate," one U.S. official said during a recent visit to the region. "And they're not ever going to be without some sort of government and private industry effort."

About 6% of daily U.S. oil demand is satisfied by Saudi oil imports, making the kingdom America's third biggest oil supplier after Mexico and Canada, the largest.

Industrialized countries' dependency on oil imports is forecast to grow from 56% of total use today to two-thirds by 2030, with much of those imports coming from the Middle East, according to the International Energy Agency.

But some Gulf officials dispute that security at regional oil installations is inadequate and say they don't need U.S. assistance.

An oil-ministry official from one Persian Gulf country said regional security measures are already robust, and that some governments would be reticent about publicly seeking assistance from the U.S., given high levels of public distrust in the region for American foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia already "has very good security measures in place, the official said. But the Saudis would be very cautious of seeking U.S. help, even in areas where it could be needed, because of internal opposition to U.S. policies," this official said.

Averill, in an interview in Abu Dhabi after a closed-door conference with government and industry officials in November, said the response from host governments to the State Department initiative has so far ranged from enthusiastic to negative. "It's divided, but I would say generally favorable." For countries that have said they aren't interested, "we've taken the view that we'll come back and talk again in a while," he said.

The U.S. has long spent heavily on a large military presence in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Averill said he and colleagues are now offering fresh advice and expertise based on America's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"The U.S.'s attention has been focused on security issues more than any other country since 9/11," he said. "We are ahead of the pack on implementing homeland security measures, (and) national infrastructure security plans. To our knowledge, no other country has a plan that is that detailed. We probably have more collective expertise than anybody in the world."

The State Department launched the initiative shortly after the Abqaiq incident, aiming to create partnerships with countries to boost security at key energy facilities, according to a department official.

A number of countries have signaled interest, but the official declined to identify them.

"Historically, U.S. activities to secure global energy supplies have usually focused on our conveying concerns to owners/operators of foreign oil and petroleum companies and host nations and expecting them to take care of the situation from there," according to a State Department official in Washington.

"This strategy is the first effort of its kind in which we are deliberately crafting relationships and activities to work together and proactively with the host nations to assist in securing facilities," the official said.

Under the multi-year initiative, known as Global Critical Energy Infrastructure Protection Strategy, the U.S. is also offering the assistance of "security experts" to provide recommendations on security improvements.

The U.S. government is planning to send a Department of Energy official to the Saudi Arabia Interior Ministry for six months in 2007 to advise on security matters, according to a Western security analyst. The energy and state departments declined to comment on this matter.

Averill said U.S. attention will focus on oil production and processing facilities with a capacity of more than one million barrels a day, of which there are no fewer than ten in the Middle East.

"We are looking at a nexus where multiple pipelines come together," said Averill. U.S. assistance will also include helping assess the impact of bomb attacks on energy facilities and guiding authorities on how to proceed if an attack succeeds, he said.

Analysts say Gulf states like Saudi Arabia have made progress in bolstering security measures, but acknowledge they have room to improve.

"Countries like Saudi Arabia have made a lot of progress ... but new challenges are emerging, so the need for an integrated approach is quite clear," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

"In some conditions, the U.S. could bring intelligence and communications (capabilities) that no oil-exporting country can provide," Cordesman said.

Even those who believe security at energy installations is strong acknowledge the risks. "We continue to be vigilant in combating the threat ... (but) the terrorists are not going to stop at Abqaiq," Saudi oil minister Ali Naimi said in Washington in May.

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