Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Low Risk Gasoline Tank Farms

As I noted in yesterday’s blog on the Draft RBPS comments the American Petroleum Institute made some statements in their comment that absolutely astounded me. I briefly addressed their comment about the ‘low risk’ gasoline storage facilities. In hind site I realized that I treated the API unnecessarily roughly. I still think that they are severely misguided, but that is a problem that is too common throughout the petrochemical industry and it is due to a misunderstanding of the concept of ‘at high-risk of terrorist attack’.

Legally a High-Risk Facility

As I noted in my earlier blog, by definition, any facility that is covered by CFATS is at high-risk for terrorist attack. Section 550(a) of the Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2007 gives the Secretary the sole authority to determine what facilities are legally at high-risk. To aid in that determination DHS established the Top Screen and Security Vulnerability Assessment (SVA) tools within the on-line Chemical Security Assessment Tool (CSAT).

Determining High-Risk Status 

Facilities that have at least a screening threshold quantity (STQ) amount of one of the 300 or so DHS Chemicals of Interest (COI) listed in Appendix A to 6 CFR part 27 are required to prepare and send to DHS a Top Screen Submission using CSAT. DHS uses that information to make a preliminary determination if the facility is at high-risk of terrorist attack. If the facility is preliminarily designated a high-risk facility it is required to submit an SVA. The information from the SVA is then analyzed by DHS and the final high-risk status and Tier level are determined.

DHS refuses to discuss the details of the process by which it determines high-risk status and Tier levels. By examining the questions asked in the Top Screen and SVA submissions we can tell a lot. Release Toxic COIs reach high-risk status by the number of people they expose upon release. Release Flammable COIs reach high-risk status by the damage radius of the explosion upon release and detonation. Release Explosive COIs are evaluated in the same manner. Theft/Diversion and Sabotage COI are harder to figure out, but are really not relevant to this discussion.

Gasoline does not fit well in this model. It is certainly flammable, but it is not actually on the DHS Chemicals of Interest list. It gets sucked into this process because of the flammable COI mixture rule. Butane, a listed Release Flammable COI, exists in most gasoline in excess of the 1% listed in Appendix A. That makes the butane in gasoline large storage tanks reportable.

Gasoline can form a fuel-air explosive under certain conditions, but it is much more likely to ignite and burn in a really nasty and impressive fire. A gasoline storage tank fire burns for a while. The smoke is mildly toxic and can cause problems for people with breathing problems. And the heat from the fire can cause extensive damage to nearby structures. But, then again, the same can be said for a lot of other chemicals that DHS is making no attempt to regulate under CFATS.

The ‘Gasoline Specific Questions’ on the Top Screen give a suggestion of why DHS is treating gasoline storage areas different than most other flammable liquids that are not specifically COI. Since the fuel industry has classified fuel depots as low-risk facilities it is not unusual for commercial and residential areas to be found in close proximity to such storage facilities. Close enough, in fact, that they would be directly impacted by a catastrophic fire at these facilities.

These potential results, combined with the non-existent security at these facilities, make them easy targets to attack. The combination of ease of attack and visually spectacular results places these facilities at high-risk for terrorist attacks.

Economic Risk 

To the best of my knowledge DHS has not yet started including economic and strategic effects of attacks on facilities in determining facility risk status. These calculations are more difficult to set-up in a meaningful way and they have enough high-risk facilities to worry about in any case. There are many economic reasons that might make a facility a target to be attacked.

The gasoline shortages and resulting price increases in the Southeastern United States this last summer were caused, in part, by disruptions to the distribution networks by hurricanes striking the Gulf Coast. These price increases contributed to the rise in oil prices. Iran, Venezuela and Russia all benefited from those oil price increases.

It takes no great leap of intelligence to believe that any of those three countries could decide that controlled interruptions in the gasoline supply in the United States would cause further economic disruption here and an increase of income to those countries. Any of those countries, could use loosely controlled proxies to effect such attacks with great deniability.

No Longer Low Risk

Gasoline storage/distribution facilities have been considered low-risk facilities. This was due to a combination of basic safety controls and the lack of a real threat. The same could be said for the Twin Towers in New York City on September 10th, 2001. The threat situation has fundamentally changed and continues to evolve. Attacks on Mexican oil lines and Canadian gas lines demonstrate the potential risk in areas close to home. Proper security will reduce the risk here.

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