WASHINGTON -- The FBI has warned energy companies that Osama bin Laden may have approved plans to attack North American natural gas pipelines and facilities if he's captured or killed, a warning that prompted a tightening of security.
Natural gas producers and pipeline companies continued to be on a high state of alert, industry executives said Monday, although they declined to discuss the latest warning, which was sent in a memo to industry security officials last week.
Attorney General John Ashcroft confirmed the warning, though he expressed some doubt that attacks would be conditioned on bin Laden's capture or death.
''It didn't take anything specific to trigger the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon,'' said Ashcroft when asked about the alert at a news conference. Even so, ''those are the kinds of reports which we take seriously.''
The alert did not single out a specific target, but referred to natural gas supplies including the more than 260,000 miles of gas pipelines and hundreds of pumping stations and other facilities.
''We have received uncorroborated information that Osama bin Laden may have approved plans to attack natural gas supplies in the United States,'' said the memo, according to several industry sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
''Such an attack would allegedly take place in the event that either bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Omar are either captured or killed,'' the alert continued.
The FBI alert said the information came ''from a source of undetermined reliability'' and that ''no additional details on how such an attack would be carried out, or which facilities would be targeted'' could be learned.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the energy industries -- including operators of nuclear power plants, refineries, pipelines and power grids -- have scrambled to increase security on a belief that they could be singled out for another round of attacks.
One industry source characterized the FBI warning as similar to one issued earlier this month on potential attacks against West Coast bridges that prompted security alerts. In that case, no further evidence of potential terrorist activity emerged.
The alert was sent on Nov. 17 from FBI headquarters to agency field offices, which then forwarded the information to industry officials. The alert prompted the American Petroleum Institute, which is the lead industry group coordinating with the FBI and Energy Department on security matters, to issue a memo last Wednesday to oil and gas companies.
Energy industry executives were reluctant to discuss the latest alert, or their security measures, although several confirmed the memo and said additional precautions have been taken. Still, the potential for a terrorist attack has left some industry officials jittery.
''We prefer to keep a low profile,'' said an official of one of the largest natural gas pipeline companies, agreeing to speak only on background so that the company would not publicly be singled out.
''Our facilities are on high alert and they have been since Sept. 11,'' said Laurie Cramer, a spokesperson for the Natural Gas Supply Association, which represents natural gas producers.
There are 263,000 miles of natural gas transmission lines crossing the country and another million miles of local distribution lines. Although most of the lines are buried, aerial surveillance of major pipelines has been increased and security tightened at pumping stations, industry officials said.
Access to facilities has been restricted as well, officials said. Also, some detailed information about location of pipelines and other energy infrastructure has been taken off some corporate and government Internet sites.
But the industry is in a quandary over how much information should be withheld about the location of pipelines, which often must be clearly marked to prevent someone from accidentally rupturing one when digging. The availability of maps also has helped to promote acceptance of pipelines in communities.
''We want people to know where they are'' to prevent accidents, said Benjamin Cooper, executive director of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines. But he acknowledged the desire for public disclosure now is being tempered somewhat for security concerns.
''The biggest danger to natural gas pipelines on an ongoing basis is (the line) being hit by a backhoe or heavy equipment,'' said Kelly Merritt, a spokesperson for Columbia Gas Transmission Corp., one of the country's biggest pipeline companies.
While a rupture of a gas or oil pipeline could cause significant problems, industry experts emphasized that most lines are relatively isolated and even a major break in a line can normally be repaired fairly quickly.
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