While Congress did not pass legislation toward strengthening the nation’s cyber security profile, leaders at the agency overseeing much of U.S. critical infrastructure decided they will take the helm.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) officials last Thursday created the agency’s new Office of Energy Infrastructure Security (OEIS), 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.
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, FERC officials said.
“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.”
Wellinghoff said 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. “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.”
Joseph McClelland, director of FERC’s Office of Electric Reliability, said 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 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.”