FERC proposes measures to beef up security of critical facilities

Source: Katherine Ling, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, July 18, 2014

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission yesterday took the first steps to increase the physical protection of critical facilities in the nation’s interconnected electric grid.

The FERC commissioners approved a proposed rulemaking that would require owners and operators of the bulk power system to identify critical facilities, as well as threats to and vulnerabilities of those facilities, and to create a security plan to protect against and mitigate physical attacks on that infrastructure.

FERC in March ordered the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the federally appointed grid monitor, to submit a plan to enhance physical security of the grid. The order came shortly after Wall Street Journal articles highlighted a “military style” attack on a Pacific Gas & Electric Metcalf substation near San Jose, Calif., that disabled transformers by knocking out cooling equipment in April 2013, and examined the nation’s vulnerabilities to such a threat.

The articles generated criticism and questions about current voluntary protection standards from the Senate Democratic leadership, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and other congressional members (Greenwire, Feb. 18).

NERC presented the proposed standards to FERC in May, with an 86 percent approval rating from industry members, although some, like the Bonneville Power Administration, the largest transmission owner in the western United States, questioned the feasibility of implementing the orders (EnergyWire, May 29).

The FERC-proposed rulemaking includes some modifications of the NERC-submitted standards, including allowing FERC or another “appropriate federal entity” to add or subtract facilities from the critical list and to add the word “widespread” to qualify instability of the grid to avoid ambiguity. FERC has requested comments on those issues.

Acting Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur said she was particularly interested in seeing feedback on what else could be done to maintain the reliable operation of the grid in terms of supply chain issues, equipment sharing and logistics. FERC also requested additional information on other facilities that should be under the critical infrastructure protection standards in the proposed rulemaking.

LaFleur also noted that the notice of proposed rulemaking is narrowly focused and “does not cover the waterfront” on the issue.

While the proposed rulemaking was approved by all four FERC members, Commissioner John Norris again cautioned stakeholders to “be rational about this” and to approach this in “a modern way as opposed to concrete barriers.” Norris previously voiced concerns about an overreaction to the PG&E attacks (Greenwire, Feb. 20).

Next steps for LaFleur

LaFleur also commented on the Senate vote to confirm her earlier this week for another five-year term as a member of the commission, along with Norman Bay, who will fill the long-vacant fifth chair once he is sworn in (E&ENews PM, July 15).

LaFleur and Bay were confirmed under an unusual political deal struck between the White House and members of the Senate Energy Natural Resources Committee, wherein LaFleur will lead FERC for the next nine months, after which the White House could install its choice for chairman. President Obama’s initial pick to have Bay be nominated as chairman of the commission received pushback and resulted in the deal and confirmation for both nominees.

LaFleur said her understanding is that she will be leading the commission for the next nine months “with full authority” but would leave exact titles or announcements on the subject up to the White House.

The acting chairwoman said she would continue her focus on reliability and security, as she has the past eight months in the same position, and “doesn’t anticipate any broad changes in priority with the extension of my leadership.” Of particular focus, LaFleur said, would be energy infrastructure to support changes in the resource mix, natural gas pipeline networks, work in natural gas-fired electric markets, transmission improvements as called upon for reliability and increased renewable technologies.

“As the carbon regulations get more developed, there will certainly be adaptations in our market that we will have to get started on,” she added.

LaFleur also confirmed that she intended to stay for her full five years as commissioner, with no plans to step down after her nine months at the head of the agency were done.