The new administration in Washington will mean changes at the Federal Communications Commission which will likely have a significant effect on oil and gas operators involved in the specialized field of energy telecommunications. Yet that is just one of the issues that concerns operators.
Attracting a younger workforce, ensuring the security of their SCADA systems and network separation are also high on their list of issues, as leaders of the Energy Telecommunications & Electrical Association (ENTELEC) explained in an exclusive roundtable.
The panelists include Greg Vaughn, Dan Mueller, Brian Gore and Jack Richards. Vaughn is serving as ENTELEC president this year. He is with Kinder Morgan Energy Partners. Mueller, who is with EPCO, Inc., and Gore, with Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, are members of the board of directors. Jack Richards, with Keller and Heckman, LLP, is the long-time ENTELEC General Counsel.
What are the oil and gas industry companies doing to attract young workers to areas such as SCADA and telecommunications?
Vaughn: It seems that most of the oil and gas industry is aware of the age gap that has presented itself across many of the functional areas within their companies. Most of us have active programs to engage students for part-time and full-time activities that typically occur through the summer months while they are on break. Some companies are also able to provide part-time work to students that are interested during the school year. These programs help identify strong candidates for future employment and promote awareness of our company and industry to a younger group. For those of us involved in industry-related groups such as ENTELEC this is often a topic of discussion. Within these organizations we try to offer opportunities such as job fairs or free admission to various events that we hope help promote our industry and our field to college students who are studying for technical degrees.
Mueller: Via Human Resources, we are partnering with numerous universities to provide internship opportunities for engineering students and will be working to create a similar program for technicians in the field.
Gore: Quality SCADA and telecommunications personnel can be difficult to locate. Boardwalk SCADA leaders attract young SCADA and telecommunications personnel through networking with university peers, teaching efforts and seminars at universities, and other social networking events. Students studying computer engineering learn the proper combination of computer science and electrical engineering skills required for the SCADA and telecommunications field.
Military personnel entering the civilian workforce can be excellent candidates for the SCADA and telecommunications fields. Fortunately, the oil and gas industry and the military have somewhat similar communication requirements; both need high availability services that are resilient to harsh conditions while providing multiple backup paths to ensure constant communications. Military personnel gain an excellent understanding of radios, voice, and some basic networking skills. The basic knowledge of networking has become increasingly more important, given most oil and gas field devices are IP-enabled.
Do you see any changes at the Federal Communications Commission as a result of the Obama administration that will affect the oil and gas industry? Is the oil and gas industry able to satisfy its spectrum requirements for SCADA, high-speed broadband and other new technologies?
Mueller: Concerning the industry’s spectrum requirements, the newer technologies are sufficient in the more populated metropolitan areas but there are still needs in the offshore environment and in the more rural areas where a tremendous amount of our assets are located that need connectivity.
Gore: The FCC will most likely see changes as a result of the new administration. I am going to defer this to Jack Richards as he specializes in this area.
Richards: Certainly there will be changes at the FCC under the Obama administration, and many of them will affect the oil and gas industry. Although the FCC is an “independent agency” (i.e., not under the direct control of the White House), the president nominates the chairperson who sets the regulatory tone. A majority of the commissioners also is required by law to reflect the political party of the administration. So as the commission transforms from a Republican to a Democratic majority, so, too, will the priorities and focus of the agency.
Energy issues in particular have moved to the forefront of our national policy debate, and the new FCC must step up to the plate and do its part to ensure that energy companies have adequate spectrum to support their operations. At the same time, the new FCC can be expected to press forward with new and expanded broadband opportunities for all users, in part to combat the economic challenges facing the country.
The oil and gas industry relies on the FCC to support its extensive communications requirements. Oil and gas companies install, operate and maintain countless communications facilities, including mobile radios in vehicles, portable handheld units, wireless laptops, point-to-point and point-to-multipoint microwave systems for SCADA, IP-based broadband networks and fiber links. To operate successfully, many of these systems are dependent on the availability of sufficient radio spectrum.
But to obtain access to radio spectrum, the oil and gas industry often must compete at the FCC with commercial providers such as cellular, personal communications services or advanced wireless licensees. When allocating spectrum and assigning licenses, the FCC has historically favored these types of consumer-friendly commercial providers over oil and gas companies and other industrial users. In fact, for many years, the amount of spectrum available for use by oil and gas companies actually was decreasing as the commission re-allocated critical industrial radio spectrum for other purposes.
This historic approach may change as the Obama administration takes control of the FCC. Improving the economy, facilitating energy independence and promoting broadband deployment will be top priorities for the new FCC. As part of that effort, the commission may well focus on satisfying the broadband and other communications requirements of oil and gas companies.
Within the last year or so, the situation at the FCC has been gradually improving for energy companies. For example, at the request of the American Petroleum Institute, the FCC reversed itself and allocated 66.5 MHz of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band (the same band that Clearwire is using to roll out “4G” WiMAX services terrestrially) for use on platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. This band offers tremendous potential for offshore companies to provide IP-based broadband services.
The FCC also opened up a large block of spectrum in the 3650-3700 MHz band (3.65 GHz) throughout the United States. While technical restrictions may apply, the 3.65 GHz band is available for fixed and mobile operations on a nationwide, non-exclusive and non-auctioned basis. The 3.65 GHz band represents a unique opportunity for oil and gas companies and other private wireless users to deploy point-to-multipoint broadband services.
Within the last few months, the FCC decided to allow low power devices to operate on certain portions of the television broadcast spectrum. As long as no interference is caused to TV broadcasters, the FCC’s new rules allow wireless devices to operate in the TV broadcast spectrum on a secondary basis at locations where channels are not being used for authorized broadcast services (called TV White Spaces). This spectrum, too, may be useful to oil and gas companies.
There are no promises when it comes to predicting action by the FCC. But with these types of new spectrum opportunities, coupled with a new administration that is focused on improving the economy, facilitating energy independence and promoting broadband deployment, the oil and gas industry may be well-positioned to satisfy its spectrum requirements for SCADA, high-speed broadband and other new technologies in the years ahead.
Is wireless for business and SCADA still secure? As the availability of leased services becomes more robust (MPLS, Wimax, Wifi etc.), does your company still consider company-owned infrastructure (private microwave, voice and data radio systems etc.) a key primary and/or backup for these services?
Vaughn: At this point we rarely use wireless systems within our networks for business network connectivity. When we do it is kept very secure through internal processes and authentication methods. This remains an area that we will continue to monitor and evaluate. For data gathering into SCADA and other control systems various wireless products are used. These are the typically spread-spectrum, MAS, and satellite-data systems.
In terms of services, we are open to advanced offerings from our network providers. We continue to use private microwave and our own radio systems as the primary communications media where it makes sense to do so. We will frequently enhance our internal systems or provide alternate routing through vendors that can provide MPLS or similar services. As with most decisions this is driven by cost analysis. If we can save money and improve services we will pursue the private or the public provider options as they become available.
Mueller: We still use a significant amount of private microwave as a primary transport for critical voice, data and video information within our communications network. The primary transport is licensed, but we do utilize some unlicensed systems if the application fits. We also utilize private microwave as a backup to robust leased circuits. As a general rule, we do not traverse the Internet with any critical data, so for the leased wireless systems that we utilize, we will deploy a back-haul circuit directly to the vendor of choice to connect to our private network. Most of the leased wireless systems are utilized as a backup circuit. While cellular phones have almost become the primary form of voice communications, we still have regional private voice radio systems that support the field operations.
Gore: Wireless is secure for both business and SCADA, given the proper implementation. Administrators have many tools to help defend against attacks. If used correctly, wireless can be a secure tool for business and SCADA.
Company-owned infrastructure can be valuable to Boardwalk’s telecommunication services. Where applicable, we use microwave, data/voice radios, and wifi. However, with the availability of robust leased services, our company takes advantage of many different types of communication methods, depending on the application, location, and priority of the site.
As it relates to your overall communications/network infrastructure, is your company pursuing an overall strategy to isolate critical SCADA and process controls information from your corporate network? If so, is it a physical separation, a virtual separation or a hybrid of the two?
Vaughn: Providing a separate SCADA network has become a best practice within the industry. As you read any of the various policy or best practice guides, they unanimously call for the SCADA infrastructure being on a separate network. Since the initial networks were put in place, the products pipelines have typically maintained separate networks for their SCADA systems. Within the natural gas industry, it seems that as the network capabilities were enhanced in the late 1980s and as data requirements for electronic flow measurement (EFM) were defined through the early 1990s, the business networks grew from networks initially installed for real-time and EFM-data handling.
As the business networking needs increased due to growth in the usage of e-mail, client-server based systems, and file transfers the needs of the business users began to impact the data update rates of the SCADA systems. By the time that we experienced the events of 9/11 and the increased awareness of security, most companies that had not separated their SCADA and business networks began to explore network-separation projects.
In terms of the type of separation that is being provided, that is a decision each company has to make as they determine the risks and costs of each method of separation. Many SCADA networks that were originally installed as physically separate networks will likely continue to provide a complete physical separation. For companies that developed projects to split networks you will frequently find the hybrid separations. One common path that companies follow is to provide dedicated SCADA infrastructure within the primary and backup data centers, and then provide virtual separation on the wide area network links down to the field or remote office-based locations.
Mueller: We are utilizing a hybrid of physical and virtual separation processes to isolate critical SCADA and process controls information from our corporate network.
Gore: Boardwalk is actively participating with our peers within the natural gas transmission community and the INGAA Security Task Group. Our goal is to develop a consistent strategy to provide best practices for our industry as a whole. Boardwalk employs a combination of physical and logical separation of the SCADA and corporate networks. We intend to incorporate enhancements developed through our work with our peers and INGAA to further secure our computing environment. Boardwalk is committed to providing a secure environment for both SCADA and business systems.
Greg Vaughn, ENTELEC President 2008-2009, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, 713-369-8830, Greg_vaughn@kindermorgan.com. Vaughn, P.E. is the IT Director-SCADA at Kinder Morgan Energy Partners. He has been employed in various SCADA related positions since earning a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tulsa in 1985.
Dan Mueller, ENTELEC Board of Directors, EPCO, Inc., 210-528-3829, firstname.lastname@example.org. Mueller is director of communications for EPCO, Inc. He has 24 years of experience in the communications field, primarily in the oil and gas industry. After completing his military service and college efforts, Dan worked for Valero Energy where he obtained most of his microwave, SCADA, radio systems and phone system experience.
Brian Gore, ENTELEC Board of Directors, Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, 713-479-8145, Brian.email@example.com. Gore is a senior network and security architect for Boardwalk Pipeline Partners in Houston, TX. He has designed and supported the LAN/WAN/SCADA infrastructure for Boardwalk for eight years. He supported the network infrastructure for Entergy Koch Trading, the server systems for First Data Information Management Group and the computers of the Flight Crew Operations Division for NASA at the Johnson Space Center. He has worked in the IT field for 13 years.
Jack Richards, ENTELEC General Counsel, Keller and Heckman, LLP, 202-434-4210, firstname.lastname@example.org. Richards is a partner in the Washington, DC law firm of Keller and Heckman LLP (www.khlaw.com). Prior to joining Keller and Heckman in 1986, he served 10 years as an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission. He represents petroleum and natural gas companies, electric utilities and others before the FCC and elsewhere on licensing, regulatory and telecommunications transactional matters. He also serves as counsel to the API on telecommunications matters at the FCC. His responses in this article reflect his personal views and not necessarily those of any of his clients.