Cyberattacks could have real-world economic consequences in the oil and gas markets, even at the pump

First installment in a series on cyberthreats to the oil and gas industry

Some 30,000 or so hard drives were scrapped and replaced with new ones last year on Saudi Aramco's internal corporate network after a massive cyberattack destroyed data on the oil and natural gas company's Windows machines. While the massive attack didn't directly affect Saudi Aramco's oil production and exploration systems, it raised the stakes for the increasingly targeted oil and gas industry and also raised concerns of possible market fallout from such attacks.

The oil and gas industry today is in the bull's eye of nation-states, hacktivists, and even cybercriminals, and, like other energy sectors, its industrial control systems are about a decade behind the security curve of the traditional IT environment. While Saudi Aramco said the attack was isolated to its corporate network and didn't directly affect its hydrocarbon exploration and production systems -- which run on isolated networks -- the reality is that a successful cyberattack could have ripple effects and ultimately result in real-world economic consequences in the oil and gas markets, security and oil and gas industry experts say. It could either directly or indirectly disrupt production, competition, and, ultimately, prices at the pump, they say.

If Stuxnet were the tipping point for ICS/SCADA attacks, then the data-destruction attacks on Saudi Aramco and on Qatar's RasGas gas company last year represent a major shift from cyberspying on oil and gas companies to more widespread destruction of their operations.

"I wonder if that's their Estonia moment," says Richard Bejtlich, CSO at incident response provider Mandiant, who says his company has been getting more inquiries from Middle East organizations lately. "We're moving beyond the stage of, 'This is a problem, and how do we fix it?'"

A recent Council on Foreign Relations report warns that future cyberattacks on the oil and gas industry could threaten the competitiveness of the U.S. oil and gas industry, pointing to the Saudi Aramco, Qatar RasGas, and cyberespionage attacks on Chevron and other U.S. oil companies, as warning shots.

"Some damage was done in each of these cases, but the costs of future breaches could be much higher, whether to corporate assets, public infrastructure and safety, or the broader economy through energy prices. Successful cyberattacks threaten the competitiveness of the U.S. oil and gas industry, one of the nation’s most technically advanced and economically important sectors," the report said. "While intrusions previously focused on the theft of intellectual property and business strategies, the malware attack on Saudi Aramco reflects a worrying qualitative change toward attacks with the potential for causing physical disruptions to the oil and gas supply chain."

But a widespread energy catastrophe would be difficult to execute electronically. Plant systems, indeed, are not as well-fortified electronically as IT systems in many cases, but they also are not as homogenous, which actually makes them more difficult to penetrate on a larger scale. "There are adversaries trying to get to those systems," says Patrick Miller, president emeritus of EnergySec and managing partner at The Anfield Group. "But it's not like you get into one Windows [machine there] to get into [others]. It's difficult to cause widespread catastrophic damage. You can do pockets, like Stuxnet [did]."

That doesn't mean, however, that a high-profile targeted attack couldn't still incur some economic damage. "Any market has an element of confidence built into it. If you erode confidence in the supply or any of its elements," it could affect the market, he says.

"A long and slow [attack] could cause quality issues with some of these ... it doesn't necessarily take a frontal assault to [hit] the bottom line. This is an ecosystem," he says.

Could gas prices be affected? "That's not even a stretch -- yes," Miller says.

But physical attacks against the energy sector are the biggest worries today, Miller says. "There's a greater opportunity for cyberattack than there was four or five years ago. The physical attack threat is constant," he says. "The ability to cause long-term catastrophic damage is far greater from a physical perspective."

Eyal Aronoff, co-founder of the Fuel Freedom Foundation, says cyberattacks on the oil and gas industry are more than just "a nuisance" anymore. The biggest threat, he says, is domestic terrorism, typically politically or economically motivated.

Aronoff maintains that the U.S. market is probably safest from economic injury because it's so decentralized, while centralized, government-run oil and gas providers in other nations are sitting ducks. "The U.S. is the most protected because there are hundreds of large companies -- billions of dollars in companies -- in this space ... they are all large enough to overcome any difficulties of a shutdown," he says. "However, companies like Pemex [in Mexico], centralized government companies, are great risk because of their centralized nature."

The combination of a physical and digital attack on a government-owned oil company could have long-lasting effects on the oil markets, such as temporary shortages and a price hit, he says. "That could be devastating and could last for very long time ... it would definitely affect prices at the pump and might create temporary shortages."

An engineer for a U.S. oil and gas company who requested anonymity says the chances of a cyberattack affecting petroleum production and gas prices in the U.S. are "pretty slim."

"We should prepare and mitigate for it, but the [chances] are still slim," he says. "It would have to be a really big facility" hit that would result in driving up gasoline prices, he says. "And even big plants are somewhat divided into individual units," which decentralizes the target, he says.

The U.S. has fairly diversified production, he says, with pipelines "moving around," so the supply issue wouldn't be as much of a risk. It would more likely result in bad PR and embarrassment for the breached company, he says, which could have a ripple effect on the stock market, for instance.

"There is more flexibility in supply," he says. But there are exceptions: "There are a couple of facilities of offshore crude [oil] that, if taken down, would cause major problems," he says.

A lesser-understood and more insidious threat is the manipulation of the oil trading market by nefarious actors, the Freedom Fuel Foundation's Aronoff says. "Jacking up the price of gas can cause a recession in the U.S.," he says.

Some anomalies in the oil market have raised concerns that organized cybercrime may be attempting to manipulate the market for profit, EnergySec's Miller notes. "There have been some minor situations where just oddities have happened, and the market has reacted ... My Spidey sense is that the blips we're seeing are those parties seeing how the market would react to certain situations."

Miller says the end game could be bankrupting a company, or "devaluing" one. "You might see the transfer of wealth across international borders. If you wanted to buy a company, you would devalue them" surreptitiously and then buy them, he says.

[Old-school but painful data-destroying malware attacks in the Middle East a red flag to revisit incident response, recovery. See The Data-Annihilation Attack Is Back.]

Meanwhile, there's the Iran factor. The reported U.S. involvement in Stuxnet and its destruction of the Natanz nuclear facility's centrifuges could come back to haunt it, experts worry. Cyberespionage against oil and gas firms by the Chinese could be just the calm before the storm: "Say what you will about the Chinese and their cyberactivity, but they are very polite in at least they only steal data. I'm a little worried if Iran turns around and says, 'It's payback time,'" says Nick Levay, CSO at Bit9. "It's pretty easy to break into organizations."

Levay says while some energy firms are working hard to close security holes in their infrastructures, others aren't there yet. And that leaves the door open for a determined adversary to do some damage, he says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights