Maritime Security:

Federal Efforts Needed to Address Challenges in Preventing and Responding to Terrorist Attacks on Energy Commodity Tankers

GAO-08-141: Published: Dec 10, 2007. Publicly Released: Jan 9, 2008.

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U. S. energy needs rest heavily on ship-based imports. Tankers bring 55 percent of the nation's crude oil supply, as well as liquefied gases and refined products like jet fuel. This supply chain is potentially vulnerable in many places here and abroad, as borne out by several successful overseas attacks on ships and facilities. GAO's review addressed (1) the types of threats to tankers and the potential consequences of a successful attack, (2) measures taken to protect tankers and challenges federal agencies face in making these actions effective, and (3) plans in place for responding to a successful attack and potential challenges stakeholders face in responding. GAO's review spanned several foreign and domestic ports, and multiple steps to analyze data and gather opinions from agencies and stakeholders.

The supply chain faces three main types of threats--suicide attacks such as explosive-laden boats, "standoff" attacks with weapons launched from a distance, and armed assaults. Highly combustible commodities such as liquefied gases have the potential to catch fire or, in a more unlikely scenario, explode, posing a threat to public safety. Attacks could also have environmental consequences, and attacks that disrupt the supply chain could have a severe economic impact. Much is occurring, internationally and domestically, to protect tankers and facilities, but significant challenges remain. Overseas, despite international agreements calling for certain protective steps, substantial disparities exist in implementation. The United States faces limitations in helping to increase compliance, as well as limitations in ensuring safe passage on vulnerable transport routes. Domestically, units of the Coast Guard, the lead federal agency for maritime security, report insufficient resources to meet its own self imposed security standards, such as escorting ships carrying liquefied natural gas. Some units' workloads are likely to grow as new liquefied natural gas facilities are added. Coast Guard headquarters has not developed plans for shifting resources among units. Multiple attack response plans are in place to address an attack, but stakeholders face three main challenges in making them work. First, plans for responding to a spill and to a terrorist threat are generally separate from each other, and ports have rarely exercised these plans simultaneously to see if they work effectively together. Second, ports generally lack plans for dealing with economic issues, such as prioritizing the movement of vessels after a port reopens. The President's maritime security strategy calls for such plans. Third, some ports report difficulty in securing response resources to carry out planned actions. Federal port security grants have generally been directed at preventing attacks, not responding to them, but a more comprehensive risk-based approach is being developed. Decisions about the need for more response capabilities are hindered, however, by a lack of performance measures tying resource needs to effectiveness in response.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and the Attorney General should direct the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to work together to, at the local level, help ensure that spill and terrorism response activities are integrated for the best possible response by maximizing the integration of spill and terrorism response planning and exercises at ports that receive energy commodities where attacks on tankers pose a significant threat.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that if a terrorist attack on an energy commodity tanker were to occur, relevant stakeholders would need to integrate separate plans for the two types of responses necessary for mitigating the consequences of an attack--spill and terrorism responses. GAO reported that the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should conduct joint exercises that simulate an attack and the agencies' responses. Without such exercises, it would be questionable whether joint Coast Guard and FBI activities would proceed as planned. GAO recommended that at the local level, the Coast Guard and the FBI coordinate to help ensure that spill and terrorism response activities are integrated for the best possible response by maximizing the integration of spill and terrorism response planning and exercises at ports that receive energy commodities where attacks on tankers pose a significant threat. In response to our recommendation, in April 2008, the Coast Guard updated guidance which states that the ability to simultaneously execute multiple plans, such as the Area Maritime Security Plan and other federal, state, and local response and recovery plans, should be part of the overall Area Maritime Security exercise and preparedness program. In accordance with this guidance, the Coast Guard, along with the FBI and other stakeholders, has conducted exercises that address an integrated spill and terrorism response.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and the Attorney General should direct the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to work together to, at the national level, help ensure that a detailed operational plan has been developed that integrates the different spill and terrorism response sections of the National Response Plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that stakeholders could face challenges in responding to a terrorist attack on a tanker carrying energy commodities, given the existence of separate plans for the two types of responses necessary for mitigating the consequences of an attack--spill and terrorism responses. GAO recommended that the Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) coordinate at the national level to develop a detailed operational plan that integrates the different spill and terrorism response sections of the National Response Plan. As of July 2012, the different spill and terrorism response sections of the National Response Plan remain separate annexes in the renamed National Response Framework. The Coast Guard has worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a workgroup to develop recommendations to support the interface of the National Response Framework and the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan. According to the Coast Guard, the workgroup's efforts and interagency dialogue were subsumed into input on the National Response Framework that was due to the President on June 30, 2012. However, this workgroup did not focus on integrating the spill and terrorism response sections of the National Response Framework. As of July 2012, the FBI had taken no action to implement this recommendation. This recommendation is closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should work with federal, state, and local stakeholders to develop explicit performance measures for emergency response capabilities and use them in risk-based analyses to set priorities for acquiring needed response resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not yet issued explicit performance measures for emergency response capabilities to inform risk-based analyses of capability gaps and prioritize the acquisition of needed response resources. When GAO issued this report, DHS officials had told GAO that DHS's Port Security Grant Program was undergoing a fundamental shift from a facility security focus to a more comprehensive approach to managing risk within ports, including efforts related to response and recovery activities. DHS officials told GAO that they were working with the U.S. Coast Guard to develop an integrated, risk-based decision-making process for allocating grant funds for each port area. However, DHS cannot be assured that it is appropriately targeting funding to the projects that most reduce overall risk because it has not developed quantitative performance measures. GAO recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security work with federal, state, and local stakeholders to develop explicit performance measures for emergency response capabilities and use them in risk-based analyses to set priorities for acquiring needed response resources. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed effectiveness metrics to use in prioritizing Port Security Grant Program projects for funding. These metrics attempt to quantify the effectiveness of a project by rating projects on a numeric scale. For example, one measure assigns projects a score between 0 (not effective) and 8 (extremely effective). However, based on the documentation FEMA provided, these metrics are not based on explicit performance measures for emergency response capabilities. Our assessment is that the development of these metrics is not sufficient to close this recommendation as implemented. Specifically, in order to meet the intent of our recommendation and make effective judgments about funding for risk reduction projects to close capability gaps, DHS would need to develop performance measures that will be able to quantitatively determine the spill and terrorism resources that should be available. Without such performance measures, the federal government is not able to conduct objective capability gap analyses, based on reducing overall risk, that could be used to set priorities for allocating grant funds for acquiring needed response resources. This recommendation is closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and the Attorney General should direct the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to work together to, at the national level, help ensure that a detailed operational plan has been developed that integrates the different spill and terrorism response sections of the National Response Plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that stakeholders could face challenges in responding to a terrorist attack on a tanker carrying energy commodities, given the existence of separate plans for the two types of responses necessary for mitigating the consequences of an attack--spill and terrorism responses. GAO recommended that the Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) coordinate at the national level to develop a detailed operational plan that integrates the different spill and terrorism response sections of the National Response Plan. As of July 2012, the different spill and terrorism response sections of the National Response Plan remain separate annexes in the renamed National Response Framework. The Coast Guard has worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a workgroup to develop recommendations to support the interface of the National Response Framework and the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan. According to the Coast Guard, the workgroup's efforts and interagency dialogue were subsumed into input on the National Response Framework that was due to the President on June 30, 2012. However, this workgroup did not focus on integrating the spill and terrorism response sections of the National Response Framework. As of July 2012, the FBI had taken no action to implement this recommendation. As a result, this recommendation is closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to develop national-level guidance that ports can use to plan for helping to mitigate economic consequences, particularly in the case of port closures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO reported that the economic consequences of a terrorist attack on a tanker could be significant, particularly if one or more ports are closed. We identified some ports that, on their own initiative, were incorporating economic recovery considerations into their port-level plans, but at the time of our review in 2007, there was no national-level guidance for use by local ports. GAO recommended that the U.S. Coast Guard develop national level guidance that ports can use to plan for helping to mitigate economic consequences, particularly in the case of port closures. In response to our recommendation, in the spring of 2008, the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) developed Joint Protocols for the Expeditious Recovery of Trade. These protocols establish a communications process and describe how the Coast Guard and CBP are to coordinate with other federal agencies and the maritime industry to facilitate recovery and resumption of trade following an event that causes a major disruption to the maritime transportation system. These agencies have also developed supporting documents that describe how port- and regional-level Coast Guard and CBP organizational command and control structures are to manage the impacts from major disruptions in the maritime transportation system and how these actions are to support decision-making at the national level. These actions are consistent with the intent of the recommendation and it is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard to develop a national resource allocation plan that will balance the need to meet new liquified natural gas security responsibilities with other existing security responsibilities and other Coast Guard missions. This plan needs to encompass goals and objectives, timelines, impacts on other missions, roles of private sector operators, and use of existing state and local agency capacity.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that the U.S. Coast Guard's primary challenge in implementing plans for helping ensure the security of maritime energy commodity shipments was limited resources to meet its security workload. In particular, Coast Guard field units at some ports have not always been able to meet their maritime security activity requirements, and the Coast Guard's resource demands were expected to grow as more facilities for importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) were to come on line. GAO recommended that the Coast Guard develop a national resource allocation plan that will balance the need to meet new LNG security responsibilities with other existing security responsibilities and other Coast Guard missions. As of August 2013, the Coast Guard was in the process of developing a national strategy for reducing the maritime security risks present in the bulk transportation and transfer of extremely hazardous cargo, as directed by the Coast Guard Authorization Act. Coast Guard officials said they planned to develop a resource allocation plan as part of the Coast Guard's process for implementing the national strategy. In the interim, the Coast Guard published guidance in January 2011 to clarify the timing and scope of the process that is necessary to ensure full consideration is given to safety and security of the ports, the facilities, and the vessels transporting LNG. However, as of late August 2013, the time frames for developing and issuing the national strategy and subsequent resource allocation plan were uncertain. Given this situation, and that the recommendation was made in 2007, GAO is closing this recommendation as not implemented.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant of the Coast Guard and the Attorney General should direct the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to work together to, at the local level, help ensure that spill and terrorism response activities are integrated for the best possible response by maximizing the integration of spill and terrorism response planning and exercises at ports that receive energy commodities where attacks on tankers pose a significant threat.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that if a terrorist attack on an energy commodity tanker were to occur, relevant stakeholders would need to integrate separate plans for the two types of responses necessary for mitigating the consequences of an attack--spill and terrorism responses. GAO reported that the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should conduct joint exercises that simulate an attack and the agencies' responses. Without such exercises, it would be questionable whether joint Coast Guard and FBI activities would proceed as planned. GAO recommended that at the local level, the Coast Guard and the FBI coordinate to help ensure that spill and terrorism response activities are integrated for the best possible response by maximizing the integration of spill and terrorism response planning and exercises at ports that receive energy commodities where attacks on tankers pose a significant threat. In response to our recommendation, in April 2008, the Coast Guard updated guidance which states that the ability to simultaneously execute multiple plans, such as the Area Maritime Security Plan and other federal, state, and local response and recovery plans, should be part of the overall Area Maritime Security exercise and preparedness program. In accordance with this guidance, the Coast Guard, along with the FBI and other stakeholders, has conducted exercises that address an integrated spill and terrorism response.

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