New Threats to Pipelines

We have to be prepared for both emerging and new threats to our pipelines. This section covers two such threats: theft, and cyber crime.

1. Theft

One of the biggest problems in the pipeline industry today is theft of product, Figure 1 from onshore pipelines. This theft involves diesel, kerosene, gasolene, crude oil, etc.. The stolen product can be sold locally to farmers, haulage companies, etc., or exported.

Historically, these thefts (usually called ‘illegal tapping’, as it involves illegally cutting into the pipe and fixing a valve onto the pipe – ‘tapping’) were in Nigeria and Colombia, but now they have become a worldwide problem. The theft is relatively simple, but can have high casualties, and serious environmental consequences.

Figure 1. Product Theft from Onshore Pipelines.

Nigeria is losing almost 15 % of its oil production through theft on pipelines [1]. At current prices this would mean a financial loss of almost $3 billion/year.

Mexico is faced with a huge theft problem: the theft has evolved from small time criminal activity to a sophisticated operation linked to Mexico’s main criminal groups (the drug cartels) who see it as a ‘side business’ [1, 2, 3, 4]:

“In 2009… U.S refineries bought millions of dollars worth of oil stolen from Mexican government pipelines and smuggled across the border… by Mexican drug cartels….” Associated Press (E E Castillo, 19 Dec 2010), on MSNBC.

Stealing 10,000 litres of crude from one pipe gives a profit of about US $4,600, with the tapping taking about 30 minutes [2, 3]. This is a good rate of return on investment: tapping machine can be bought from internet for ~$1,000.

  • There were 2,500 illegal taps in the first nine months of 2014, stealing > $1 billion in fuel [1, 2, 3].
  • In 2017 there were 10,363 illegal taps detected in state-owned pipelines (average of ~ 28 illegal taps every day) [5]. These thefts cost Pemex > $1 billion in losses in 2016. The estimated cost for 2017 is even higher [5]. The illegal taps are usually discovered either because they leak, cause pipeline pressure to drop, or catch fire.
  • Thieves use hand drills to make a hole in pipelines and quickly screw valves and hoses into place; they use everything from 275 gallon (1,064 litre) portable tanks to entire tanker trucks [5].

It should be emphasized that theft is a world-wide problem. Figure 2 shows the increasing rate of thefts in Italy [6]. Thefts are now being reported extensively throughout Europe and they continue in South America, and Africa. Theft is not being reported regularly in Eastern Europe, but it is understood to be a major problem, and there are reports that theft has started in North America.

Figure 2. Product Theft from Pipelines in Italy.

2. Cyber Crime

Computers control almost everything we do. A cyber-criminal, for example, could hold a country at ransom by stopping its gas supply. This is a real concern; there were at least 245 cyber-attacks against energy organizations in 2015, with many more unreported [7]. Consider these quotes:

‘Cyber criminals have breached Energy Transfer’s Panhandle Eastern pipeline system in the United States, causing to shut down until further notice… The attack was limited to the electronic data interchange system that facilitates transactions over oil and gas moving through its pipelines .’ [8]

‘A Department of Homeland Security [USA] study confirmed that the [cyber-attack] campaign targeted 23 gas pipeline companies and stole sensitive operational and technical data sufficient to give the cyber thief sufficient insider knowledge to blow up many compressor stations simultaneously.’ [9]

Traditionally, hackers wanted your credit cards and bank details. Now they want information that can be monetised, or something to control that they can hold to ransom [10].

Similarly, cyber-crime has traditionally targeted systems directly connected to the internet. Energy companies use internally-connected, and internet-connected Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) and Industrial Control Systems (ICS) to gather, analyse and monitor pipeline data, and control equipment, such as valves. Suspected SCADA/ICS security breaches had risen from 28% to nearly 40% in 2014 [11]:

‘A 2014 Department of Homeland Security [USA] survey revealed that 82,000 known ICS hardware or software systems (including SCADA systems) were directly accessible from the public internet, making those systems particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks.’ [9]

Biggest cyber attack risks are [12]:

  • employees (bad guys causing trouble…);
  • mobile devices (workers use phones, etc., to access/process data);
  • cloud storage (accessing data, anywhere, often on multiple devices…);
  • third party providers (systems may not be secure and they have access to your information);
  • malicious attacks (good guys accidently clicking on malware, giving passwords, etc.).

The industry is poorly-protected. It is estimated [13]:

  • one in three industrial sites are connected to the public Internet;
  • 3 out of 4 sites have legacy Windows boxes for which Microsoft is no longer providing security patches
  • 60% had weak and plain text passwords;
  • 50% of industrial sites aren’t running any antivirus protection
  • 82% are running remote management protocols making it easier to perform cyber reconnaissance.

There is no 100% security… The human factor is the most frequent cyber risk source…’ [14]; for example, the disgruntled employee.


  1. R Landstorfer, ‘Hot Tapping and Product Theft from Pipelines. A Way to Detect and locate these Spots during Normal operation’, Pipeline Technology Journal. Issue 1. p. 26. 2017.
  5. A Celovic, ‘Pipeline Vandalism/ Theft Plaguing Mexico’, Pipeline Technology Journal. 22nd February, 2018.
  7. Anon., ‘Cybercrime and Utilities: Preparing for Attack’, Pipeline and Gas Journal. Vol. 243, No. 2. February 2016.
  8. Anon., ‘Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Violated by Cyber Criminals’, Pipeline Technology Journal. 11 April, 2018.
  9. A R Lee, ‘Improving Pipeline Cybersecurity with Public-Private Partnerships’, Pipeline and Gas Journal. Vol. 244, No. 11. November 2017.
  10. N Maguder, ‘Cyberattacks: Why you’re the weakest link’, CNN. July 16th, 2014.
  11. C. O’Reilly, ‘Cyber Security’, World Pipelines. 16th June, 2014.
  12. E Basu, ’The Top 5 Data Breach Vulnerabilities’, Forbes. November 5th, 2015.
  13. Anon., ‘2017 Global ICS & IIoT Risk Report’, CyberX. 2017.
  14. S Arent, P Hildebrandt, ‘Holding Back the Hackers’, World Pipelines Extreme. 2018. p. 69.