Security Assistance: Efforts to Secure Colombia's Cano Limon-Covenas Oil Pipeline Have Reduced Attacks, but Challenges Remain

GAO-05-971 Published: Sep 06, 2005. Publicly Released: Oct 06, 2005.
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Oil is one of Colombia's principal exports. The Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline transports almost 20 percent of Colombia's oil production. The pipeline originates in the Department of Arauca in northeast Colombia. It carries oil nearly 500 miles to the Caribbean port of Covenas. The pipeline has been a principal infrastructure target for terrorist attacks by Colombia's insurgent groups. During 2001, attacks on the pipeline cost the Colombian government an estimated $500 million in lost revenues for the year. The United States agreed to assist Colombia in protecting the first 110 miles of the pipeline where most of the attacks were occurring. We examined how the U.S. funding and resources provided to Colombia have been used, and what challenges remain in securing the pipeline.

Since fiscal year 2002, the United States has provided about $99 million in equipment and training to the Colombian Army to minimize terrorist attacks along the first 110 miles of the Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline, mostly in the Arauca department. U.S. Special Forces have provided training and equipment to about 1,600 Colombian Army soldiers. However, the delivery of 10 helicopters purchased for the program was delayed--arriving mid 2005. Without the helicopters, the Colombian Army's ability to respond rapidly to pipeline attacks has been limited. Additionally, some equipment, such as night vision goggles, has not arrived due to the long lead-time required to obtain these items because of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite the delays in equipment deliveries, the number of attacks on the Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline has declined and security in the area has improved. In addition, the Colombian Army and Colombian National Police have improved relations with the civilian population and new oil exploration is occurring in the area due to the improved security. However, challenges to securing the pipeline remain. More attacks are occurring on the Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline outside the 110-mile long area originally addressed. Most of the Colombian Army stationed in these other areas has not received U.S. training. In addition, the insurgents have attacked the electrical grid system that provides energy to the Cano Limon oilfield. Without electricity, oil cannot be pumped. Because the U.S. funds provided for the program will be depleted by the end of September 2005, sustainability of the progress made is uncertain. Colombia cannot fully operate and maintain the helicopters provided without continued U.S. support; and due to U.S. commitments in other parts of the world, U.S. Special Forces will be reducing personnel in Colombia, which will limit future training.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State Because Colombia continues to face serious obstacles in its long-standing insurgency and in protecting the Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline, the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, should develop a plan for transitioning the pipeline security program in Arauca to the Government of Colombia. The plan should delineate (1) how the helicopters provided for pipeline security will be used and maintained, (2) how the progress made to date will be sustained, and (3) an expected completion date for U.S. involvement.
Closed – Implemented
On December 7, 2007, the governments of the United States and Colombia signed a property title transfer agreement to formally transfer the pipeline security program to Colombia. The plan clearly delineated (1) how the helicopters should be used, specifically the plan noted that all aircraft may be used for pipeline security, and that 5 aircraft may be used for other purposes (such as counter-narcotics) when not needed for pipeline protection. The plan also provided for (2) how the progress made to date will be sustained. Progress will be sustained through provisions that place priority on the original mission of pipeline security, as well as provisions that call for the continued protection and appropriate uses of the aircraft. Finally, (3) the expected completion date for U.S. involvement was determined as the date on which the U.S. Embassy and the Colombian Ministry of Defense notify each other that the respective legal requirements related to the aircraft title have been satisfied. The GAO recommendation resulted in measurable financial benefits of cost avoidance associated with the program, which had been funded at an annual rate of about $4 million. The five year cost avoidance is over $18 million.

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