Crimes targeting energy companies are escalating in severity and frequency, government and industry officials report. Simple acts of vandalism have morphed into arson, drive-by shootings and strategically placed improvised explosive devices, according to Lycoming County Department of Public Safety Director John Yingling.
"The threat could be anything from a disgruntled employee or environmentalist action group to an individual upset with a land lease or right-of-way agreement or even just a random act of violence," Yingling said.
In June, unattended seismic equipment waiting to be flown out by helicopter was torched in Brown Township, Lycoming County. While no accelerant was used, the blaze was set intentionally, according to Dan Millward, project manager for CGG Veritas.
"There's no way the fire could have jumped from one cache of heli-bags to the next," Millward said.
In Tioga County, charred debris from suspected improvised explosive devices was found at two drilling sites, according to Shell Oil spokeswoman Kelly OpDeWeegh. No one was injured, state police said.
"These devices often are found at critical junctures of infrastructure," said George Stark, Cabot Oil and Gas external affairs director. "They seem to be strategically placed by someone with knowledge."
Energy companies have increased their security measures in response to the escalating threats, according to former Marcellus Shale Coalition CEO Kathryn Klaber.
"Companies have invested millions of dollars in each one of their operations and so taking care to protect those facilities is very important," Klaber said.
Wireless cloud cameras enable security teams to monitor well sites remotely, even from a smartphone, according to eLine, a surveillance system provider for the oil and gas industry. Motion detection may be set up and will trigger an email alert with a link to associated video.
"These companies potentially could have very high-tech security equipment that can read license plates or scan for facial recognition," said Marcia Finn, state police press secretary.
Gas company officials were hush-hush when asked for details about their security strategies.
"We try not to talk too much about the security we use because then it gets people looking for it," said Robert Boulware, Seneca Resources Corp. stakeholder relations manager. "There's several different layers of security and they may not be the same from location to location," said Stark, declining to get into Cabot's strategy.
Jersey Shore-based security firm Gas Well Services, which contracts with exploration and production companies such as Anadarko Petroleum Corp., declined to comment. However, its website advertises services ranging from roving patrols to "armed and/or unarmed security guards."
If the notion of armed guards sounds extreme, so are the actions taken by some alleged criminals.
In December 2012, a gunman stepped out of his dark-colored pickup truck and fired four rounds at a security guard near a well site in Snow Shoe Township, Centre County. There were no reported injuries, according to state police.
Prominent anti-gas activist Alexander Lotorto condemned such acts of violence but said he understood the motivations behind them. Like a pressure cooker with no release valve, unvented frustrations may mount and boil over, he said.
"It's all a consequence of steam building up in the system and finally being let out by someone who fired a shot," Lotorto said. "I want to be respected and heard. Somebody who might employ violence probably wants the same thing."
Lotorto likened today's hydraulic fracturing for natural gas to the mining of anthracite coal in the 1800s.
"Pennsylvania has gone to war with industry before over conditions in coal mines," Lotorto said.
Most gas workers are non-union and have no procedure for airing grievances at work, Lotorto claimed.
"If they were to bring up a problem with the company, they get blacklisted," Lotorto said.
But disgruntled employees are only part of a broad spectrum of possible security threats to the energy sector, according to Yingling.
"Some items that look like IEDs could also be used in a drug manufacturing process or could just be a tailpipe," Yingling said.
"Most incidents, no one has been able to pinpoint that they're against the industry. It could've been random," said Craig Konkle, energy development emergency response coordinator.
Random or not, the gas industry has ramped up its awareness programs, according to Konkle.
"We have quarterly meetings in this county, which involve law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services, Emergency Management Agency and industry folks. The state police have different intelligence groups that send out bulletins of certain activity that might be investigated," Konkle said.
Depending on the type of activity or infrastructure impacted, the case could get kicked up to the state Department of Homeland Security or the FBI, according to Boulware. The discovery of an explosive device could be deemed a terroristic threat, according to Boulware.
"I guarentee you, it's bigger than you think," Boulware said. "I bet there's a whole lot more going on than what people are willing to tell you."