FORT WORTH, Texas—A company is going about its business. Then suddenly there is a blackout; all of its IT infrastructure has been hacked and corrupted. Elsewhere, an operator returns to the field and discovers equipment has been stolen.

It’s organized crime that’s been going on for a long time and continues today, according to Robert Ream, chairman of the U.S. Energy Security Council, a partnership between state, local and federal law enforcement. “It’s a complicated activity. It’s complex, and it happens every day,” he said. “Even with the downgrade in our commodity prices, the criminal activity remains.”

Ream, along with PetroCloud CEO Lance White, addressed these security issues at Hart Energy’s recent DUG Permian Basin conference.

To combat the criminal activity, Ream said the industry needs to be speaking about resiliency rather than redundancy.

Robert Ream, chairman of the U.S. Energy Security Council. (Source: Hart Energy)

The Texas attorney general’s office estimates that in 2014, more than $1 billion worth of product was stolen from U.S. operations. Ream spent the last legislative session in Austin, Texas, working with his colleagues at the Energy Security Council, industry operators and members of the state Senate and House of Representatives to get a bill passed to increase the penalties for theft associated with oil- and gas-related equipment, specifically the theft of oil and condensate.

“That’s real money—a billion dollars out of our economy taken away from us by organized crime,” Ream said. “It’s a combination of American-based criminal organizations and Mexican cartels, as well as Russians and Chinese and a lot of different organizations, that are targeting the United States and targeting our critical infrastructure for theft, fraud and misappropriation.”

The Energy Security Council has a board of directors representing the FBI, the Texas Department of Public Safety and local county sheriff’s offices in Texas.

“This is a group of people that get together about once a quarter, and we train intelligence at the law enforcement sensitive level. We look for license plates, we look for names [and] we share that information among ourselves so that we can work with law enforcement to track down and hold criminals accountable for their actions,” Ream said.

“Because [these criminals are] not just stealing equipment; they’re trading in that equipment across the regions. You’ll have equipment stolen in the Permian Basin that shows up in the Bakken. You’ll have equipment that’s stolen in the Marcellus and resold in the Permian Basin or maybe even in the Eagle Ford. This is not single individuals taking advantage of circumstances. This is organized activity.”

Ream said the council works closely with an FBI taskforce in Midland, Texas—the only taskforce in the country specializing in oilfield crime—to identify and track down those criminals and hold them accountable.

And the application of technology has been a major factor in preventing these crimes.

“In the world of SCADA control [and] distributable industrial control systems, the improvement in technology, and specifically around communications, has enabled us to add systems to the field where previously they weren’t viable. These systems allow us to improve our situational awareness,” Ream said. 

“The days of sending guys out to the field in white pickup trucks to find out what’s going on are slowly disappearing. What we’re transitioning to is an environment where we know what’s going on in the field, and we can send out somebody to respond to a specific situation. No longer do they have to go out to access the problem, but they’re able to determine the problem ahead of time and respond with the appropriate tools.”

The result is an improvement in efficiency and effectiveness, Ream said. The new technology allows users to witness the crime as it’s being committed and/or prevent it with the management of industrial control systems (e.g., shutting systems down or tracking and identifying the culprit via cameras).

Lance White, CEO of PetroCloud. (Source: Hart Energy)

PetroCloud designs such security applications for operators across the nation. 

“There’s a lot of change and innovation happening right now,” White said.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the next “big step forward,” according to White. IoT works to integrate an ecosystem and relies more heavily on software rather than hardware.

“We’re actually integrating all of these devices and all of these data at the field level. It’s kind of a paradigm shift,” he continued. “It opens up cross-functional access to data. We’ve got operations centers, personnel, managers [and] we’ve got business functions like security, etc. that all have access to the same platform and various systems.”

Examples of security technologies PetroCloud can provide range from laser trip wires; military-grade cameras; radar surveillance systems that can track speed, work with drones and show thermal images; employee badges and keypad entry; remote gate access with voiceover ID intercom systems; and alarms and video monitoring. 

“Plunging us into darkness would be a catastrophic event,” Ream concluded. “Over the coming years as technology becomes more and more embedded in how we live our lives and work our systems, you’ll see the impact of that become ever more present."

The important takeaway is to spread awareness on these issues, he said. Be conscious of who is working for you, understand the options for maintaining day-to-day operations in a safe and secure manner, protect valuable company information and stay alert.

Ariana Benavidez can be reached at abenavidez@hartenergy.com.