Narrow focus urged on cyber measure

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David Callis serves as Vice President of Statewide Services for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

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Narrow focus urged on cyber measure

by David Callis, Vice President of Statewide Services for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

The electric power industry and the bulk power system reliability watchdog are capable of responding to “the overwhelming majority of identified threats” to the system, a National Rural Electric Cooperative Association representative testified on Capitol Hill.

The self-regulatory model recognizes expertise throughout the industry and is the best means of maintaining a strong, reliable bulk power system, said Barry Lawson, NRECA associate director for power delivery and reliability.

Lawson spoke at a May 31 hearing by the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power examining draft legislation to protect the grid from physical and cyber threats and vulnerabilities. The bill, the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act (GRID Act), is identical to a measure approved last year by the House.

The legislation seeks to protect the bulk power system and defense critical electric infrastructure from cyber attacks, direct physical attacks, man-made electromagnetic pulses and geomagnetic storms. Despite the industry’s readiness to respond to most identified threats, its lack of classified intelligence may make it less able to respond as quickly as needed to some “imminent and severe” challenges, Lawson acknowledged.

“In those limited circumstances, it is appropriate to provide a regulatory backstop,” he said.

That backstop — federal emergency authority — would extend until the threat subsides or the watchdog North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) could adequately address the threat through standards and/or alerts, Lawson said.

However, he added, the draft GRID Act creates new authority regarding vulnerabilities for FERC that would largely duplicate NERC’s existing authority, potentially undermining the existing reliability standards regime.

Lawson encouraged the House subcommittee to focus on immediate issues. One is the need for the federal government to issue emergency orders very quickly if the bulk power system is under threat of imminent cyberattack. The other is the need for the electric power industry to receive timely and actionable information from the federal government to facilitate responses to such threats.

The House panel also heard from a range of other witnesses. Joseph McClelland, director of FERC’s Office of Electric Reliability, said the agency’s current authority is not adequate to address cyberthreats or other national security threats to the grid. The legislation “would go a long way to resolving this issue,” he added.

Patricia Hoffman, Department of Energy assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability, testified that “it is important to have a comprehensive government-wide strategy for cybersecurity legislation.” The White House recently proposed a comprehensive cyber bill; it isn’t yet moving on the Hill.

Meanwhile, NERC President and CEO Gerry Cauley told lawmakers that the grid watchdog “has many tools available” to address threats and vulnerabilities in a timely and effective fashion. “These existing processes should be enhanced, not pre-empted, by cybersecurity grid legislation,” he said.

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