The nation depends on the interstate pipeline system to deliver oil, natural gas, and more. This increasingly computerized system is an attractive target for hackers and terrorists. (Protection of cyber critical infrastructure is on our High Risk List.)
We found weaknesses in how TSA manages its pipeline security efforts. For example, it has no process for determining when to update its guidelines for pipeline operators. Also, its method for assessing risks needs updating.
We made 10 recommendations, including establishing better processes for updating guidelines and assessing risks.
Map of Hazardous Liquid and Natural Gas Pipelines in the United States, September 2018
This map of the United States shows the massive network of pipelines.
What GAO Found
Pipeline operators reported using a range of guidelines and standards to address physical and cybersecurity risks, including the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) Pipeline Security Guidelines, initially issued in 2011. TSA issued revised guidelines in March 2018 to reflect changes in the threat environment and incorporate most of the principles and practices from the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity. However, TSA's revisions do not include all elements of the current framework and TSA does not have a documented process for reviewing and revising its guidelines on a regular basis. Without such a documented process, TSA cannot ensure that its guidelines reflect the latest known standards and best practices for physical security and cybersecurity, or address the dynamic security threat environment that pipelines face. Further, GAO found that the guidelines lack clear definitions to ensure that pipeline operators identify their critical facilities. GAO's analysis showed that operators of at least 34 of the nation's top 100 critical pipeline systems (determined by volume of product transported) deemed highest risk had identified no critical facilities. This may be due, in part, to the guidelines not clearly defining the criteria to determine facilities' criticality.
U.S. Pipeline Systems' Basic Components and Vulnerabilities
To assess pipeline security risks, TSA conducts pipeline security reviews—Corporate Security Reviews and Critical Facility Security Reviews—to assess pipeline systems' vulnerabilities. However, GAO found that the number of TSA security reviews has varied considerably over the last several years, as shown in the table on the following page.
Pipeline Security Reviews Conducted, Fiscal Year 2010 through July 2018
aFiscal year 2018 data are through July 31, 2018.
bFiscal years 2010 and 2011 represent Critical Facility Inspections—the predecessor of the Critical Facility Security Review.
TSA officials stated that staffing limitations have prevented TSA from conducting more reviews. Staffing levels for TSA's Pipeline Security Branch have varied significantly since fiscal year 2010 with the number of staff ranging from 14 full-time equivalents in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 to 1 in 2014. Further, TSA does not have a strategic workforce plan to help ensure it identifies the skills and competencies—such as the required level of cybersecurity expertise—necessary to carry out its pipeline security responsibilities. By establishing a strategic workforce plan, TSA can help ensure that it has identified the necessary skills, competencies, and staffing.
GAO also identified factors that likely limit the usefulness of TSA's risk assessment methodology for prioritizing pipeline system reviews. Specifically, TSA has not updated its risk assessment methodology since 2014 to reflect current threats to the pipeline industry. Further, its sources of data and underlying assumptions and judgments regarding certain threat and vulnerability inputs are not fully documented. In addition, the risk assessment has not been peer reviewed since its inception in 2007. Taking steps to strengthen its risk assessment, and initiating an independent, external peer review would provide greater assurance that TSA ranks relative risk among pipeline systems using comprehensive and accurate data and methods.
TSA has established performance measures to monitor pipeline security review recommendations, analyze their results, and assess effectiveness in reducing risks. However, these measures do not possess key attributes—such as clarity, and having measurable targets—that GAO has found are key to successful performance measures. By taking steps to ensure that its pipeline security program performance measures exhibit these key attributes, TSA could better assess its effectiveness at reducing pipeline systems' security risks. Pipeline Security Branch officials also reported conducting security reviews as the primary means for assessing the effectiveness of TSA's efforts to reduce pipeline security risks. However, TSA has not tracked the status of Corporate Security Review recommendations for the past 5 years. Until TSA monitors and records the status of these reviews' recommendations, it will be hindered in its efforts to determine whether its recommendations are leading to significant reduction in risk.
Why GAO Did This Study
More than 2.7 million miles of pipeline transport and distribute oil, natural gas, and other hazardous products throughout the United States. Interstate pipelines run through remote areas and highly populated urban areas, and are vulnerable to accidents, operating errors, and malicious physical and cyber-based attack or intrusion. The energy sector accounted for 35 percent of the 796 critical infrastructure cyber incidents reported to DHS from 2013 to 2015. Several federal and private entities have roles in pipeline security. TSA is primarily responsible for the oversight of pipeline physical security and cybersecurity.
GAO was asked to review TSA's efforts to assess and enhance pipeline security and cybersecurity. This report examines, among other objectives: (1) the guidance pipeline operators reported using to address security risks and the extent that TSA ensures its guidelines reflect the current threat environment; (2) the extent that TSA has assessed pipeline systems' security risks; and (3) the extent TSA has assessed its effectiveness in reducing pipeline security risks.
GAO analyzed TSA documents, such as its Pipeline Security Guidelines ; evaluated TSA pipeline risk assessment efforts; and interviewed TSA officials, 10 U.S. pipeline operators—selected based on volume, geography, and material transported—and representatives from five industry associations.
GAO makes 10 recommendations to TSA to improve its pipeline security program management (many are listed on the next page), and DHS concurred.
GAO recommends, among other things, that the TSA Administrator take the following actions:
implement a documented process for reviewing, and if deemed necessary, for revising TSA's Pipeline Security Guidelines at defined intervals;
clarify TSA's Pipeline Security Guidelines by defining key terms within its criteria for determining critical facilities;
develop a strategic workforce plan for TSA's Security Policy and Industry Engagement‘s Surface Division;
update TSA's pipeline risk assessment methodology to include current data to ensure it reflects industry conditions and threats;
fully document the data sources, underlying assumptions and judgments that form the basis of TSA's pipeline risk assessment methodology;
take steps to coordinate an independent, external peer review of TSA's pipeline risk assessment methodology;
ensure the Security Policy and Industry Engagement‘s Surface Division has a suite of performance measures which exhibit key attributes of successful performance measures; and
enter information on Corporate Security Review recommendations and monitor and record their status.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Transportation Security Administration||The TSA Administrator should direct the Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division to implement a documented process for reviewing, and if deemed necessary, for revising TSA's Pipeline Security Guidelines at regular defined intervals. (Recommendation 1)|
|Transportation Security Administration||The TSA Administrator should direct the Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division to clarify TSA's Pipeline Security Guidelines by defining key terms within its criteria for determining critical facilities. (Recommendation 2)|
|Transportation Security Administration||
Priority Rec.The TSA Administrator should develop a strategic workforce plan for its Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division, which could include determining the number of personnel necessary to meet the goals set for its Pipeline Security Branch, as well as the knowledge, skills, and abilities, including cybersecurity, that are needed to effectively conduct Corporate Security Reviews (CSR) and Critical Facility Security Reviews (CFSR). (Recommendation 3)
|Transportation Security Administration||The TSA Administrator should direct the Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division to update the Pipeline Relative Risk Ranking Tool to include up-to-date data to ensure it reflects industry conditions, including throughput and threat data. (Recommendation 4)|
|Transportation Security Administration||The TSA Administrator should direct the Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division to fully document the data sources, underlying assumptions and judgments that form the basis of the Pipeline Relative Risk Ranking Tool, including sources of uncertainty and any implications for interpreting the results from the assessment. (Recommendation 5)|
|Transportation Security Administration||
Priority Rec.The TSA Administrator should direct the Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division to identify or develop other data sources relevant to threat, vulnerability, and consequence consistent with the National Infrastructure Protection Plan and DHS critical infrastructure risk mitigation priorities and incorporate that data into the Pipeline Relative Risk Ranking Tool to assess relative risk of critical pipeline systems, which could include data on prior attacks, natural hazards, feedback data on pipeline system performance, physical pipeline condition, and cross-sector interdependencies. (Recommendation 6)
|Transportation Security Administration||
Priority Rec.The TSA Administrator should direct the Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division to take steps to coordinate an independent, external peer review of its Pipeline Relative Risk Ranking Tool, after the Pipeline Security Branch completes enhancements to its risk assessment approach. (Recommendation 7)
|Transportation Security Administration||The TSA Administrator should direct the Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division to ensure that it has a suite of performance measures which exhibit key attributes of successful performance measures, including measurable targets, clarity, and baseline and trend data. (Recommendation 8)|
|Transportation Security Administration||The TSA Administrator should direct the Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division to take steps to enter information on CSR recommendations and monitor and record their status. (Recommendation 9)|
|Transportation Security Administration||The TSA Administrator should direct the Security Policy and Industry Engagement's Surface Division to improve the quality of its pipeline security program data by developing written documentation of its data entry and verification procedures, implementing standardized data entry formats, and correcting existing data entry errors. (Recommendation 10)|