SA congressman warns of Russian hackers targeting oil and gas companies

A San Antonio-area congressman is warning oil and natural gas companies about threats from Russian hackers.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, a former CIA agent, believes the success of the shale revolution in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas and the Permian Basin in West Texas has made oil and natural gas companies a target.

More crude oil and natural gas from the U.S. is reaching European markets, which have been traditional sources of revenue for Russia, Hurd told nearly 200 people Thursday at the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association's summer conference at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort.

"There's a reason that you and all your peers are seeing an increase in attacks to your digital infrastructure," Hurd, who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said during his speech. "The Russians see y'all as an existential threat to their way of life."

Hurd's warning to the industry follows a joint technical alert issued in March by the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, which said that hackers linked to the Russian government have used malware, phishing and other techniques to gain access to industrial control systems in the U.S. energy sector.

"Digital security is just as important as physical security," Hurd said. "If I'm an attacker, and I have two options — doing something to your pump jack from 6,000 miles away or sneaking someone onto your compound and sneaking them out so they don't get caught — I'm going to go with option one."

Out of the 290 cyberattacks that the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team responded to in 2016, Hurd told the Business Journal that 59 attacks were directed at the oil and natural gas industry. Working in an espionage collective known as "Dragonfly," Russian hackers used cyberattacks to knock out the power grid in Ukraine in late 2015. So far, cybersecurity breaches in the American oil fields have been acts of espionage, but Hurd fears that they could later translate into acts of sabotage.

"The Russians have shown a willingness to use digital attacks to have physical outcomes," Hurd told the Business Journal. "That's a hypothesis that we have to be prepared for."

Oil companies are taking the threat seriously and investing in digital security while governments across the globe are looking at their cybersecurity laws. Meanwhile, Russia is not the only bad actor.

"When we look at the cyberthreat from the Chinese, it's intelligence that they can steal and replicate in order to do what we've done in Texas and other parts of the world," Hurd said.

Hurd is not the only lawmaker concerned about foreign threats to the oil and natural gas industry. As chairman of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, issued a report in March saying that Russians were using social media to turn American public opinion against hydraulic fracturing, the technique that has unlocked large oil and natural gas reserves in Texas, North Dakota, Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The report stated that there were nearly 9,100 posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram generated by Russians to promulgate disinformation and get people to question U.S. energy policy.

"Russia benefits from stirring up controversy about U.S. energy production," Smith said in a past statement. "U.S. energy exports to European countries are increasing, which means they will have less reason to rely upon Russia for their energy needs."

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