Feds: DOE Gains Power in Cyber Emergencies

Friday, May 13, 2011 @ 02:05 PM gHale

Any cyber security legislation moving forward should grant the Energy Department authority to order utilities to take action when there is an emergency threat to critical elements of the electricity grid, officials, lawmakers and industry leaders said.

“We’re in agreement that when we are talking about the imminent threats, it’s DOE that has that authority; they don’t need to wait for anyone,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, at a hearing on a draft bill to protect the nation’s power supply from cyber attacks.

Murkowski and committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., released a 12-page bipartisan draft legislation April 15 aimed at protecting bulk power systems and electric infrastructure from cyber attacks. If the panel approves a final draft, it would become part of a larger package after the Senate receives the Obama administration’s plan, Murkowski said. Other items in the committee’s draft are still under debate debated.

The panel’s emergency proposal covers critical electrical infrastructure, or systems that generate and distribute electricity for interstate commerce, which if impaired would harm national security.

If faced with an immediate threat, “the [Energy] secretary may require, by order, with or without notice, persons subject to the jurisdiction of the [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] under this section to take such actions as the secretary determines will best avert or mitigate the cyber security threat,” the language stated.

The government would reimburse companies for costs incurred if they must implement immediate actions.

The draft bill exempts Alaska and Hawaii from such emergency orders. However, it calls for the Pentagon to come up with a plan for protecting power supplies at Defense Department facilities against imminent cyber threats in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.

The electric sector “already is subject to a set of mandatory and enforceable cyber security standards that are developed by industry stakeholders and approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” Bingaman said. “This fundamentally distinguishes the electric sector from virtually all other critical infrastructure sectors. However, I do not believe that the existing suite of reliability standards and the process for developing them is sufficient to defend the electric infrastructure against deliberate cyber attacks.”

The language also has the backing of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a private organization responsible, by law, for enforcing standards that regulate bulk power system users, owners and operators. “NERC has consistently supported legislation to address cyber emergencies,” said Gerry Cauley, the corporation’s president and chief executive.

After Stuxnet, “the industry took the actions to install patches and blocks to keep that from penetrating our control systems,” Cauley said. Those risks “are very real — they are very scary.”

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