Cushing oil terminals: the town's income, pride and now fear AP


Saturday, April 5th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


CUSHING, Okla. (AP) -- D.J. Duncan worries and stores drinking water, but she's not sure either will help if terrorists ever target this town's many oil storage tanks and pipelines.

"You always wonder what you're supposed to do if there's an attack," Duncan said while standing in a grocery parking lot with three Sunoco Inc. oil tanks behind her. "I guess I'd get in my little claustrophobic bathroom, like I would during a tornado."

Duncan, a 47-year-old housewife and grandmother, is like a lot of the 8,371 residents in this central Oklahoma town, the self-proclaimed "Pipeline Crossroads of the World."

They have been afraid since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that terrorists will target the massive oil tank farms and pipelines around Cushing that hold and transport more than 10 percent of the U.S. crude oil supply. Concerns have grown with the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Town and company officials feel it, too. They've hired more security guards, increased police patrols and made sure tank gates are always locked. Last month, they closed roads to the tank farms south of town.

Oil industry representatives say the vast spaces between tanks at the farms make them a poor target for terrorists hoping for maximum effect from minimum resources. Pipelines, too, are equipped with so many spill-fighting valves that an explosion would have little impact, they say.

"No one would be able to approach even the small percentage of our crude oil supply by attacking one of these farms," said Bruce Bell, chairman of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association of Oklahoma.

Still, folks in Cushing aren't taking chances.

The Chamber of Commerce removed all references to the pipelines and oil storage facilities from its Web site right after 9/11, and officials won't discuss the oil terminals for fear of attracting attention.

"If the media didn't come up here and publicize it, there'd be no threat because terrorists wouldn't know it was here," said Bob Abshier, a self-employed Cushing resident, echoing a popular sentiment.

At least eight major oil pipelines intersect in Cushing, where many of the world's largest oil and gas companies including BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell Pipeline Co. and Williams Cos. also have storage tanks.

The tanks' reported capacity of about 30 million barrels of crude oil represents more than 10 percent of the nation's typical crude reserves. The United States had about 272 million barrels in storage as of March 21, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

The New York Mercantile Exchange, the world's largest energy futures market, uses Cushing as a reference point when pricing its light sweet crude oil futures. Homeland Security officials classify Cushing's tanks and pipelines as nationally important infrastructure.

The FBI, Cushing officials and the oil companies formed an ad hoc group called the Safety Alliance of Cushing after 9/11 to protect the pipelines and tanks from terrorists. Neither the FBI nor the Alliance would comment.

Duncan is not impressed with the precautions.

"They say they've got extra security, but all I see are a couple of guards at the gates," she said recently. "That doesn't mean anything to me."

Not all residents worry. Many express either confidence in town leadership or a belief that terrorists won't venture this deep into middle America for an attack.

"It used to be a guy could drive right up to the tank farm, but you can't anymore," said Harold Day, a drywall worker who's lived in Cushing for all but two of his 74 years. "They've got security guards there. I don't think anybody gets in without proper clearance."

"My wife thinks about now and again," he added. "Of course, they do advertise it pretty heavily that we've got all of these pipelines."

While references were removed from the chamber's Web site, pipeline-shaped signs adorned with the town's "crossroads" slogan still greet motorists driving into Cushing from all directions.

Oil, mostly dried up by now, created Cushing, with its 50 or so churches and still active, one-screen downtown cinema, during Oklahoma's oil boom nearly a century ago.

"It's double edge sword," said Linda Logan, 52. "For decades it's been Cushing's pride and a major source of income," but now the remnant tanks and pipelines also provide fear, she said.