Panic at the Pump and the Real Threat to Energy Security
On Friday, May 7, the Colonial Pipeline was taken offline by a cyber attack. A major piece of the national energy infrastructure, the 5,500-mile-long line carries 45% of all the fuel — including gasoline, aviation fuel, and home heating oil — consumed on the East Coast. The attack has been attributed to the hacker collective Darkside. By May 11, gasoline prices had spiked as gas stations in the American South reported drained inventories and panicked consumers hoarded gasoline.
Almost immediately, commentators compared the situation to the Arab oil embargo of 1973 to 1974. Such thinking reflects years of scholarship and public discourse focusing on energy security: the ability of consumers and governments to maintain access to energy flows, at reasonable prices, and handle potential disruptions.
Energy security is frequently linked within American discourse to questions of supply — we’re secure as long as we can fill our tanks. The United States, in this vision, can pump its way to security, achieve “energy independence” (or, more recently, “energy dominance”), and render foreign attempts to withhold supplies ineffective.
Such analogies, while tempting, focus attention on mythical dangers at the expense of real ones. The embargo of 1973 to 1974 was a minor incident that did little to threaten U.S. energy security. The chief source of contemporary energy insecurity, exemplified by the Darkside attack on the Colonial Pipeline, comes from a range of actions that constitute sabotage — the interruption of energy’s movement — rather than from deliberate efforts by oil producers to withhold supply, as in the 1973 embargo. Sabotage generally refers to acts of violence meant to disrupt, destroy, or deny energy resources. Drawing on the work of social scientist Timothy Mitchell, however, sabotage can be defined in broader terms to encompass actions that disrupt energy flows — be they the result of human decisions or the unpredictable consequences of global climate change. While the embargo was itself a form of sabotage, the term can cover a wide variety of situations, suggesting the broad array of challenges to contemporary energy security.
The United States enjoys relatively strong energy security, particularly from attempted embargos, thanks to abundant supplies provided by a global market. Yet the threat of sabotage, writ large, is very real, as the Colonial Pipeline shutdown illustrated. Conceiving of increased energy production as a protection against sabotage misses the big picture: To achieve energy security, it is more important to strengthen infrastructure like the pipeline against sabotage while decreasing dependence on fossil fuel consumption and diversifying energy sources in general to reduce the risk of disruption.
Energy Security and the Myth of the Embargo
The seminal moment for the study of energy security is the 1973 to 1974 oil embargo. In response to U.S. support for Israel before and during the October War, several Arab oil-producing states led by Saudi Arabia declared an embargo on all oil shipments to the United States. The embargo ended in March 1974.
Histories of the period illustrate how contemporaries regarded the embargo as a major turning point — the moment when effective control over oil resources passed from the hands of private Western oil corporations to oil-producing nations. The embargo and the “oil shocks” of the 1970s, together with the rising U.S. dependence on oil imported from overseas, convinced national security experts and policymakers that the United States needed to do more to “secure” future energy sources. Some even advocated for an invasion of the Arab oil fields. Such ideas influenced subsequent policies designed to expand the U.S. military presence in the Middle East.
In the popular imagination, the embargo has been expanded into a myth of American vulnerability. It is common to hear such myths within the domestic American energy industry, which continues to regard foreign oil imports as a national bete noire (it’s less common at larger multinational companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron as their perspective is more international). In this view, the only way to rectify the vulnerability revealed by the embargo was by expanding domestic oil and gas production, thus achieving energy independence. Others, including President Jimmy Carter, argued for conservation and greater diversity in energy production, including expanded investment in renewable sources like wind and solar, though his administration also sought to expand U.S. coal use.
Myths overstate the impact of the embargo and obscure the complex nature of energy security. The amount of oil kept out of the United States by Arab oil producers in 1973 and 1974 was small. Gasoline shortages in 1973 were the result of tightening in the supply-demand balance, an “energy crisis” which began in the late 1960s linked to the end of the Bretton-Woods economic system and the decline in American oil production after 1971, together with the Nixon administration’s attempts to impose price controls on domestic goods. The rapid increase in global oil prices was more the result of changes in the supply-demand balance, the falling value of the dollar, and negotiations between oil companies and the oil-producing states of OPEC, than aggressive action by oil-producing states looking to withhold energy supplies for political reasons.
Though the comparison is tantalizing, today’s struggle for energy security has little to do with vulnerability to oil embargos. The global oil market is fluid and supply regularly exceeds demand: when a source of oil becomes inaccessible, private actors and governments can shift to purchasing oil from a new source. Supply can always be secured — what changes is the source, price, and means of production.
Despite the theoretical security offered by an integrated global energy market, recent events have illustrated how energy crises can still erupt in sudden and unexpected ways. Besides the panic-buying of gasoline following the closure of the Colonial Pipeline, recall the catastrophic failure of energy systems during the Texas winter storm of February 2021. What these events illustrate is not vulnerability to embargos, but rather to sabotage. Sabotage doesn’t need to be deliberate, nor does it stem entirely from human action.
Dealing with the varying challenges posed by sabotage will define future efforts to achieve energy security.
Stopping the Flow: Sabotage
Sabotage can be defined as any act which interrupts the flow of energy. In simple terms, it can mean deliberate acts designed to damage or destroy energy infrastructure in order to achieve a political, strategic, or commercial goal — or, as in the Colonial case, to make a quick buck. Pipelines, waterways trafficked by oil tankers, refineries, or oil and gas fields themselves are common sites for acts meant to disrupt or impede the flow of energy.
Timothy Mitchell describes labor unions — specifically English coal miners — interrupting the flow of energy early in the twentieth century, using sabotage through coordinated work stoppages to extract political concessions. Though Mitchell does not address them, there are other instances in the history of oil where refinery workers successfully disrupted the flow of energy — most notably during the Islamic Revolution of 1978, when Iranian oil workers went on strike and shut down operations. Iranian oil production plummeted from 6 million barrels a day to less than 2 million barrels a day, causing a second “oil shock” that produced shortages in the United States and Western Europe.
When Western oil companies obtained control over Middle Eastern oil, they purposefully suppressed oil production (or “sabotaged” it, in Mitchell’s formulation) in countries where “resource nationalists” challenged their control. Acts of commercial sabotage included the boycott of Iranian oil following that country’s nationalization of its oil supplies in 1951 and the decision of major Western oil companies to under-invest in Iraq’s oil industry during a years-long dispute with the Iraqi government in the 1960s.
Sabotage can be equated to acts of denial meant to prevent a foe from enjoying access to energy resources. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalized the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company, seizing the vital waterway in the name of Arab nationalism. In October Anglo-French forces (with the assistance of Israel) launched an attack to retake the canal. Nasser, in response, sank several cargo ships at the canal’s entrance, blocking it to all traffic — an attempted sabotage. The closing of the Suez Canal threatened to wreak havoc with global shipping, while oil shortages in Western Europe and the United States were averted thanks to careful and rapid coordination by the major oil companies.
Other acts of denial fall under the sabotage umbrella. Iraq’s destruction of the Kuwaiti oil fields during the 1991 Gulf War spring to mind. Strikes against oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War demonstrate offensive sabotage. During the Cold War, the United States drew up plans to destroy the oil fields of the Persian Gulf with nuclear weapons, rendering them unusable for future exploitation, should the region fall under Soviet control.
In other instances, sabotage can be demonstrative, designed to show capability by causing large amounts of damage without creating conditions for escalation. The drone attack on the Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq in September 2019 briefly brought half of all Saudi oil production to a halt. It proved that Saudi Arabia’s nemesis, the Islamic Republic of Iran, possessed the means to strike and potentially neutralize the country’s energy infrastructure.
Sometimes, sabotage can be accidental. In 1970, the pipeline carrying oil from Saudi Arabia west to the Mediterranean was closed after being rammed by a Syrian bulldozer. The incident (it may have been deliberate) allowed the Syrian government to pressure the American companies that owned the pipeline to pay more in transit fees. The pipeline was repaired and back in operation by 1971. Accidental sabotage was broadly illustrated by the closing of the Suez Canal in March 2021, when the Ever Given container ship became wedged within the waterway, holding up shipborne traffic (including oil tankers and ships carrying liquefied natural gas) while raising oil prices and shipping costs.
Nature itself carried out a devastating act of sabotage to the energy grid of Texas in February 2021. A shocking winter storm struck the state, breaking weather records while sending energy demand up. Low temperatures hampered producers’ ability to move power to consumers. Natural gas, which Texas produces in abundant quantities, could not move through frozen transmission networks. Energy systems failed to manage the historic cold, forcing regulators to throttle capacity to prevent further damage to power plants, which plunged the state into a blackout that left 4 million without power and heat and eventually claimed nearly 200 lives.
Specific decisions made Texas unusually vulnerable to sabotage. The state possesses its own energy grid and an unregulated energy market with few redundancies. The response from many Texan policymakers focused on blaming renewable energy sources like wind power and the need to increase oil and gas production. But this misses the larger danger. The storm demonstrated the need for improved resilience within Texas’ energy grid while illustrating how climate change could potentially sabotage whole energy systems, threatening the energy security of millions of Americans — no matter how much oil and natural gas the United States produces.
Resilience, Not “Energy Independence”
In the aftermath of the 1970s oil shocks, discussion of energy security tended to focus on issues of supply. From President Richard M. Nixon’s Project Independence to President Barack Obama’s embrace of the shale revolution in the 2010s, the national discourse around ensuring energy security focuses on obtaining adequate supplies and reducing foreign dependence.
A similar mantra emerged in May following the Colonial Pipeline shutdown. Yet this view is narrow and misses the complexity inherent in energy transmission systems. The global market ensures adequate supplies are always available in the long run, though short-term shortages are a risk that needs to be addressed. Rather than pursue energy independence or increase domestic production, the United States should take a dual approach of improving the resilience of energy systems while pivoting away from depending solely on fossil fuels, both to improve overall energy security and reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change damaging or disrupting the flow of energy.
First, energy systems should be strengthened against sabotage. The Colonial Pipeline incident demonstrated the need for resilience against cyber attacks, together with the broader need for improvements to American infrastructure. While efforts should be made to strengthen infrastructure against cyber warfare, safeguards should also be erected to ensure that supplies do not suddenly run out in the event of a shock brought on by consumer panic of the kind that has left major metro areas like Charlotte and Atlanta without gasoline.
Climate change poses a significant risk and does not conform to dominant security paradigms. Weather events have successfully shut off access to energy resources. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed or damaged 109 oil platforms and drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, while Hurricane Harvey shut off one-fifth of all Gulf oil drilling in 2017. Violent weather events prove that energy from all sources — natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar, and coal — are vulnerable to sabotage. Yet the worsening effects of climate change make a shift away from fossil fuels toward lower-emission sources of energy imperative.
Second, to prevent further climate sabotage, authorities, utilities, and energy companies should take steps to improve resilience against climate risks, while embracing a shift away from fossil fuels and toward a diverse mix that includes much larger amounts of renewable energy. It will be necessary to maintain fossil fuel-based thermal energy in order to provide for sudden surges in demand. Yet to mitigate the worst effects of global climate change, including the more and more violent storms that can knock out power grids, a shift toward lower emissions and net-zero carbon plans will be essential. Otherwise, the worsening effects of climate change will create circumstances for further catastrophic sabotage of energy systems.
The Biden administration regards both climate change and strengthening national energy infrastructure as top priorities and has indicated a commitment to reducing emissions and improving resilience. The Colonial Pipeline shutdown — and the unexpected shortages it produced — together with the Texas storm of February 2021 suggest the need for urgency on those points. The experience of the 1970s did teach Americans about the importance of resilience and the security that comes from a diversity of energy sources. Complete safety is impossible to achieve. But energy security can be maintained provided the United States moves on from the myths of the 1970s, recognizes the real risks for sabotage in an age of climate instability and cyber warfare, and takes steps to mitigate those risks, putting the days of panic-buying and gas lines in the rearview.
Gregory Brew is a historian of oil, U.S.-Iranian relations, and the Cold War. He was a 2018-2020 post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. His work has appeared in the Texas National Security Review, Iranian Studies, and the International History Review. Find him on Twitter @gbrew24.
Image: Malcolm Manners