The oil and gas business has become as much about bytes as barrels in recent years. Artificial intelligence, the internet of things (IoT), big data, and the ongoing digitization of the industry have not only made it a more-efficient machine but also a target to unscrupulous sorts looking to confound, cash in, and move on. As more information comes forward regarding the May 2021 ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, it appears to have been a cash grab with the knock-on effect of physically crippling the company’s flow of fuel to East Coast states.

The outage was never the goal, but what it if had been? That question, or one similar, was part of what got the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) involved and the subsequent announcement of a Security Directive that will require critical-pipeline owners and operators to report confirmed and potential cybersecurity incidents to the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and to designate a cybersecurity coordinator, to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It will also require critical-pipeline owners and operators to review their current practices as well as to identify any gaps and related remediation measures to address cyber-related risks and report the results to the Transportation Security Administration and CISA within 30 days.

The bad guys made off with over $4 million in the Colonial attack; however, the US Department of Justice was able to recover about $2.3 million in the cryptocurrency paid by the pipeline operator. But the Colonial breach wasn’t a first for the oil and gas industry, and it certainly won’t be the last. As more of the oil field comes online, it creates additional access points for would-be villains to pounce. What makes the cybersecurity threat unique compared to other obstacles in the industry is that it is likely unsolvable, only manageable.

“This will likely be a forever problem,” said Donald Paul, research professor of engineering at the University of Southern California and former CTO at Chevron. “It’s not like you can do something and fix it all, because ultimately, as the technology changes, as you add more digital systems, more vulnerabilities show up, and then the bad guys figure out how to crack them. It’s an ongoing process.”

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