Tar Sands Drones Are On Their Way

The energy industry wants to use unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor pipelines.

Cole Stangler

Drone surveillance could make it even easier for energy companies to monitor anti-pipeline protests. (Elizabeth Brossa / Flickr / Creative Commons)

North Amer­i­can ener­gy com­pa­nies are plan­ning to use drones to mon­i­tor their pipelines — in part to check for poten­tial gas or oil leaks, but also to lim­it third-par­ty intru­sions,” a broad range of activ­i­ty that includes any­thing from unwant­ed vehi­cles enter­ing restrict­ed areas around pipelines to envi­ron­men­tal activists.

It isn’t all that difficult to imagine a scenario in which hundreds of pipeline drones are actively working to block direct action across the continent.

The Pipeline Research Coun­cil Inter­na­tion­al (PRCI), a mul­ti-nation­al orga­ni­za­tion fund­ed by some of the world’s largest pipeline oper­a­tors like BP, Shell, Tran­sCana­da and Enbridge, is lead­ing efforts to research and devel­op unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cle (UAV) tech­nol­o­gy for pipeline mon­i­tor­ing. The PRCI has been work­ing with the Amer­i­can Petro­le­um Insti­tute and the Inter­state Nat­ur­al Gas Asso­ci­a­tion on drone research for the last two years, accord­ing to PRCI Pres­i­dent Cliff John­son. He says researchers are cur­rent­ly run­ning test flights.

It could be a more effi­cient and more cost-effec­tive tool … than a manned sys­tem,” John­son says.

Today, com­pa­nies often rely on pilot­ed air­craft for pipeline mon­i­tor­ing. That involves sur­veil­lance of the pipeline’s right of way,” a strip of land sur­round­ing the pipeline whose rights are typ­i­cal­ly shared by pipeline oper­a­tors and landown­ers. In the right of way, which can range from about 25 to 125 feet, com­pa­nies check for unau­tho­rized vehi­cles, peo­ple and any­thing else that’s not sup­posed to be there. Mean­while, com­pa­nies engage in addi­tion­al envi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing to check for poten­tial threats to the integri­ty of the pipeline, such as leakage.

Drones may ulti­mate­ly be able to accom­plish both of these mon­i­tor­ing tasks more effec­tive­ly than humans, says Peter Lidi­ak, pipeline direc­tor at the Amer­i­can Petro­le­um Insti­tute (API). Lidi­ak believes that pipeline oper­a­tors will start adopt­ing drones in the next five to 10 years.

These drones will prob­a­bly be deployed in the Unit­ed States before tak­ing off in Cana­da. In 2015, the Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Author­i­ty (FAA) will release its reg­u­la­tions for com­mer­cial drones, paving the way for thou­sands of UAVs to enter domes­tic air­space. Cana­da, on the oth­er hand, does not yet have any such plans. The country’s FAA equiv­a­lent, Trans­port Cana­da, does issue licens­es for com­mer­cial drones, but the exist­ing reg­u­la­tions are strin­gent.

But this doesn’t mean Cana­da will miss out on all the action — espe­cial­ly once mul­ti-nation­als like Tran­sCana­da, which oper­ate on both sides of the bor­der, start using drones on the Amer­i­can seg­ments of their network.

Giv­en that Cana­da and the Unit­ed States, in terms of ener­gy, are very close­ly con­nect­ed, I can’t see but that once the restric­tions are lift­ed in the States, there won’t be pres­sure to do so in Cana­da,” says Angela Gen­dron, a nation­al secu­ri­ty expert and senior fel­low at Car­leton University’s Cana­di­an Cen­tre of Intel­li­gence and Secu­ri­ty Studies.

The use of drones to mon­i­tor pipelines, like any oth­er form of domes­tic sur­veil­lance, rais­es an array of pri­va­cy concerns.

In the eyes of the ener­gy indus­try, any­thing enter­ing the pipeline’s right of way is ulti­mate­ly con­sid­ered a secu­ri­ty threat. The log­ic behind drone sur­veil­lance is focused on mak­ing it eas­i­er for com­pa­nies to detect those threats — an ambigu­ous con­cept that can refer to ani­mals, vehi­cles, non-vio­lent pro­test­ers, vio­lent pro­test­ers or unau­tho­rized developers.

Paul Drover, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of Unmanned Sys­tems Cana­da, the nation’s top drone lob­by, adver­tis­es the ben­e­fits of pipeline UAVs by point­ing out their abil­i­ty to scan for envi­ron­men­tal activists. At the inter­na­tion­al drone lobby’s annu­al con­ven­tion in Wash­ing­ton last week, Drover told In These Times that aer­i­al sur­veil­lance from UAVs would enable pipeline com­pa­nies to bet­ter detect folks set­ting up camp.” When asked if he was refer­ring to activists, Drover replied that’s the left side of the arc.”

The API’s Lidi­ak insists that con­cerns about envi­ron­men­tal activism are not dri­ving indus­try inter­est in devel­op­ing drones. Yet he acknowl­edges that pro­test­ers could be cov­ered as poten­tial intruders.

The pri­ma­ry rea­son for those mon­i­tor­ing for any kind of intru­sion, whether it’s indi­vid­u­als that are poten­tial­ly protest­ing or for con­struc­tion equip­ment, is real­ly to find out if there’s any­one doing any­thing on the right of way that might be harm­ful for the pipeline,” Lidi­ak says. The pri­ma­ry pur­pose wouldn’t be mon­i­tor­ing for activists. You might be able to detect that activ­i­ty as a result of doing your patrols, but that’s not the pri­ma­ry rea­son for any kind of patrolling.”

Angela Gen­dron, who wrote a Decem­ber 2010 report for Canada’s Depart­ment of Nation­al Defence about the need to pro­tect the nation’s crit­i­cal ener­gy infra­struc­ture,” says that mon­i­tor­ing activists makes a lot of sense from the ener­gy industry’s perspective.

You do get secu­ri­ty offi­cers at pri­vate-sec­tor ener­gy com­pa­nies who are very con­cerned about envi­ron­men­tal activists and I can see that they would feel that a UAV sit­ting up there hov­er­ing for 19 hours or what­ev­er [it may be] would be quite use­ful,” Gen­dron says. As it now stands, they have to rely on police reports and any­thing else they have on hand to mon­i­tor where those activists are going to demon­strate next and so on. Hav­ing a UAV up there would be much a more eco­nom­ic measure.”

While the indus­try appears to only be inter­est­ed in using drones on com­plet­ed pipelines for now, UAVs could poten­tial­ly be used in the future to mon­i­tor pipelines under con­struc­tion. The tech­nol­o­gy may not be ready today, but if indus­try enthu­si­asts are to believed, drones could be a fix­ture of pipelines 10 to 20 years from now. And with the expan­sion of the nat­ur­al gas indus­try com­bined with an oil indus­try eager to link Alber­tan tar sands to glob­al export mar­kets, pipeline con­struc­tion doesn’t exact­ly show signs of slow­ing down.

As those plans face increased push­back from cli­mate jus­tice activists — whether it’s from rad­i­cals in the Great Plains or First Nations groups in west­ern Cana­da — it isn’t all that dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a sce­nario in which hun­dreds of pipeline drones are active­ly work­ing to block direct action across the continent.

Cather­ine Crump, staff attor­ney at the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union, says that nar­row­ly-tar­get­ed” pipeline mon­i­tor­ing isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly prob­lem­at­ic in itself, but warns about its poten­tial for abuse. I think drones raise the prospect that Amer­i­cans will be sub­ject­ed to con­stant aer­i­al sur­veil­lance in ways they’ve nev­er expe­ri­enced before and that pos­es the pos­si­bil­i­ty of chang­ing our abil­i­ty to engage in polit­i­cal protest,” Crump says.

Jesse Cole­man, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based researcher for Green­peace, points to the fact that Tran­sCana­da recent­ly col­lud­ed with law enforce­ment offi­cials to infil­trate a camp of anti-pipeline activists in Okla­homa to block a protest from tak­ing place.

To think they would do that and not use drones to spy on their oppo­si­tion, I think that’d be a lit­tle naïve,” Cole­man says. You are fly­ing over all these miles of pipeline and pick­ing up all this infor­ma­tion. What hap­pens when you do see things that are inter­est­ing to you? There are so many eth­i­cal considerations.”

Drones could also infringe on the pri­va­cy of res­i­dents who sign agree­ments with ener­gy com­pa­nies to allow pipelines to cross their property.

I would sug­gest that folks did not sign up for video sur­veil­lance when they signed ease­ment con­tracts,” says Ron Seifert, spokesper­son for the Tar Sands Block­ade, an activist group try­ing to pre­vent con­struc­tion of the Key­stone XL’s south­ern seg­ment in Texas and Okla­homa. Of course, keep in mind that a lot of these ease­ments go right through landown­ers’ front yards and back­yards. Does that mean that every time they go out­side they have to wor­ry that Tran­sCana­da, a multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion who is known to share infor­ma­tion with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, might be film­ing them? Does that mean in sign­ing a con­tract with Tran­sCana­da folks are sub­ject­ed to sur­veil­lance and shar­ing infor­ma­tion with the government?”

But Seifert says he wouldn’t expect drone sur­veil­lance to dis­suade cli­mate jus­tice activists, many of whom are already unafraid of engag­ing in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence and risk­ing arrest.

Regard­less of the type of sur­veil­lance, I think folks have come to the con­clu­sion that those risks are nec­es­sary to take,” he says. Because to not take action is far more dan­ger­ous than to set up a block­ade or par­tic­i­pate in direct action. We all know that tar sands infra­struc­ture is too dan­ger­ous to exist. It’s a threat to the future of the planet.”

Cor­rec­tion: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this arti­cle said that police had infil­trat­ed a Tar Sands Block­ade activist camp.” While the group that was infil­trat­ed, the Great Plains Tar Sands Resis­tance, is affil­i­at­ed with the Tar Sands Block­ade, the groups are distinct.

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Fol­low him @colestangler.
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