HSE & Sustainability

Securing the Oil and Gas Industry

The industry's increasing dependence on digital systems has escalated the importance of robust cybersecurity strategies, presenting an array of unprecedented challenges.

the concept of the dependence of the world economy on hydrocarbon production and the use of future technology to protect the environment and reduce the cost of oil production
Source: Igor Borisenko/Getty Images

The oil and gas sector remains a crucial pillar of the global economy, an industry that supports not only millions of jobs worldwide but also underpins essential energy provisions for homes, businesses, and transportation networks.

Yet, as digital technology continues to pervade this sector, oil and gas companies are increasingly being exposed to critical cyber threats. The industry's increasing dependence on digital systems has escalated the importance of robust cybersecurity strategies, presenting an array of unprecedented challenges.

Oil and gas infrastructures are a complex web of interconnected segments—upstream, midstream, and downstream, each with its unique facets and cybersecurity considerations. The upstream segment, involving exploration and raw material extraction, often grapples with the immense geographic dispersion of assets, rendering cybersecurity monitoring a formidable task. The midstream sector faces similar challenges, further exacerbated by dependencies on third-party vendors, making it susceptible to cyberattacks, as evidenced by the Colonial Pipeline incident. At the same time, the downstream segment, focusing on refining and distribution, relies heavily on legacy systems, often ill-equipped to cope with modern cyber threats.

The unique and complex challenges of these segments make effective cybersecurity a rather difficult task for such organizations.

Why Is Cybersecurity Challenging in the Oil and Gas Industry?
The oil and gas sector is significantly dependent on several external variables, which complicates the industry's operational landscape, consequently making cybersecurity a unique challenge. Among these, the issue of rising costs stands prominently. The volatility in barrel prices, influenced by a myriad of geopolitical, economic, and environmental factors, significantly affects the sector's long-term project planning and investments.

Notably, upstream operations that depend directly on oil prices feel this volatility acutely, with advanced methods such as offshore drilling and oil sands refining becoming economically unviable when prices plummet. This volatility can result in cost-saving measures, often at the expense of essential cybersecurity initiatives, leaving systems and equipment unprotected. Ironically, a lack of cybersecurity investments can lead to more significant financial losses, damage to reputation, and regulatory penalties.

Coupled with these challenges is the issue of ageing infrastructure. Much of the sector’s upstream and downstream facilities require costly updates or replacements. The challenge lies in the prohibitive costs versus the expected commercial output. This reluctance to update infrastructure leads to outdated and vulnerable systems existing within the organizational network, resulting in heightened cybersecurity risks.

Geopolitical risks present another major obstacle. Industry operations can be hampered by geopolitical instability, affecting the availability and price of oil and gas. This instability can also foster a volatile cybersecurity environment, exposing companies to risks of cyber terrorism, disruption of operations, and theft of sensitive information. It’s been well documented that, whenever geopolitical tension increases, state-sponsored actors tend to make the oil and gas infrastructure a common target for cyberattacks.

It’s also important to consider the challenges created by production source depletion. The depletion of traditional oil and gas sources has necessitated the exploration of new ones, using more expensive and complex methods. This process has amplified the reliance on operational technology systems, industrial control systems, and supervisory control and data acquisition systems. While these technologies increase efficiency and safety, they also broaden the potential attack surface, making the industry more susceptible to cyber threats. Thus, robust cybersecurity strategies must be a priority to mitigate these multifaceted challenges.

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