Energy Commission creates cybersecurity division in bid to secure critical infrastructure

With cybersecurity legislation so far going nowhere, the agency that oversees the power grid is taking action on its own.

With Congress failing to pass legislation strengthening the nation’s cybersecurity, leaders at the agency overseeing much of U.S. critical infrastructure are taking matters into their own hands.

Officials at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Sept. 20 announced the creation of the agency’s new Office of Energy Infrastructure Security, which will work to reduce threats to the electric grid and other energy facilities. The goal is for the office to help FERC, as well as other agencies and private companies, better identify potential dangers and solutions.

According to FERC, the OEIS will focus on developing recommendations for identifying, communicating and mitigating cyber and physical threats and vulnerabilities; providing assistance and expertise to other government organizations; participating in collaborative, interagency efforts; and conducting outreach to the private sector.

“Creating this office allows FERC to leverage its existing resources with those of other government agencies and private industry in a coordinated, focused manner,” said Jon Wellinghoff, FERC chairman. “Effective mitigation of cyber and other physical attacks requires rapid interactions among regulators, industry and federal and state agencies.”

Beyond Congress’ inability to act to protect the electric grid and other areas of vulnerability – including dams, pipelines and oil facilities, among others – FERC has been hamstrung by outdated requirements that prevent rapid action, officials have said.

Wellinghoff has stated that no organization has adequate authority regarding the nation’s energy infrastructure, and has repeatedly appealed to lawmakers for greater power to regulate.

“No. 1, I don’t have an effective way to confidentially communicate [cyber threats] to the utilities,” Wellinghoff said at a Sept. 5 IHS event in Washington, The Hill reported. “And No. 2, I have no effective enforcement authority, and I’ve said this for six years now. And I’ve also said I don’t care who has the authority, but Congress should give someone the authority.”

His concerns were echoed by another FERC official a week later in a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on emerging threats, cybersecurity and science and technology.

Joseph McClelland, director of FERC’s Office of Electric Reliability, noted that legislation from 2005 requires the agency to go through lengthy, bureaucratic processes to propose new reliability standards and modifications to existing standards, as well as to sanction users, owners and operators who violate the standards. All of the actions have to receive congressional approval.

While there are some exceptions that can be subject to an expedited process, even those can take as long as 60 days.

“Faced with a national security threat to reliability, there may be a need to act decisively in hours or days, rather than weeks, months or years. That would not be feasible even under the expedited process,” McClelland said in his Sept. 12 testimony. “In the meantime, the bulk power system would be left vulnerable to a known national security threat. Moreover, existing procedures…could widely publicize both the vulnerability and the proposed solution, thus increasing the risk of hostile actions before the appropriate solutions are implemented.”

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