Congress should act to prevent attacks — FERC acting chairwoman

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014

Congress should consider shielding sensitive information and appointing a federal agency to take emergency action to thwart physical and computer attacks on the grid, the acting chairwoman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said yesterday.

Cheryl LaFleur told Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), outgoing chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, in a letter that Congress can help protect the grid from attacks by carving out a “properly-defined exemption from the Freedom of Information Act” for confidential and sensitive information.

Congress should also consider designating a federal department or agency — not necessarily FERC — with clear and direct authority to require actions in the event of an attack, LaFleur said.

That authority, she added, should not impede FERC’s existing power under the Federal Power Act to approve reliability standards currently crafted to protect the bulk power system through the North American Electric Reliability Corp.’s stakeholder process.

LaFleur’s suggestions came in response to a request from Wyden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other top Democrats last week that FERC determine whether “minimum standards” are needed to better protect the U.S. grid following a high-profile and mysterious attack on the grid in California (Greenwire, Feb. 7).

The senators pointed to the April 16, 2013, physical attack on the grid in California that they said came “uncomfortably close to causing a shutdown of a critical substation, which could have resulted in a massive blackout in California and elsewhere in the West.”

Shots were fired at Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Metcalf substation outside San Jose, Calif., by one or more unidentified assailants, damaging critical equipment that cools power transformers, forcing them to shut down (EnergyWire, Feb. 6).

LaFleur said that, in addition to seeking congressional support, FERC and other federal agencies have been actively briefing utilities about specifics of the California attack and the need for stepped-up protections of physical assets.

“We have also conducted detailed grid modeling to identify the most critical facilities and helped identify protective measures that would be appropriate for particular types of facilities and locations,” she said.