House energy bill boosts cybersecurity for electric grid

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A Republican-backed bill overhauling federal energy policy that passed the House on Thursday includes several significant provisions aimed at defending the nation’s power supply against cyberattacks.

The bill passed on a 249-174 vote but faces a veto threat from President Obama.

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Included in Rep. Fred Upton’s (R-Mich.) legislation is the creation of a “Cyber Sense” program that would require the Department of Energy (DOE) to identify and promote cyber-secure products intended for use in the bulk-power system.

The bill also requires that both the DOE and electrical utilities create plans to keep power flowing in the event of a cyberattack. In addition, it establishes a grant program for state and local governments to prepare to mitigate power disruptions resulting from a cyberattack.

The bill comes amid growing concerns of power grid vulnerability from both sides of the aisle.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump campaign: Clinton visiting Pa. like robber visiting victim Koch officials skeptical of Trump's alleged meeting invite Clinton hammers Trump for criticizing retired general MORE has called for power grid upgrades to increase cybersecurity in a sweeping energy infrastructure policy statement released in September.

This fall, federal documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that hackers infiltrated the DOE's computer system more than 150 times between 2010 and 2014.

As the department overseeing the country's power grid and nuclear weapons stockpile, the DOE is an attractive target for cyber spies seeking to uncover vulnerabilities.

A 2013 oversight report noted “unclear lines of responsibility” for cybersecurity within the DOE, as well as a “lack of awareness by responsible officials.”

Experts say critical infrastructure sites are increasingly at risk as electric grids get “smarter.”

National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers told lawmakers last fall that China and “one or two” other countries would be able to shut down portions of critical U.S. infrastructure with a cyberattack. Researchers suspect Iran to be on that list.

Upton’s bill faces steep hurdles in the form of Democratic opposition.

Although a stripped-down version passed through an Energy and Commerce Committee subpanel unanimously over the summer, Democrats on Thursday said Republicans had packed the final version with too many provisions they couldn’t support.

The bill “has one central theme binding its titles: an unerring devotion to the energy of the past,” ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said. “Provision after provision favors an energy policy dominated by fossil fuels and unnecessary energy use. It is the Republican Party's 19th century vision for the future of U.S. energy policy in the 21st century.”

The White House came out against the bill earlier this week, threatening to veto it over several regulatory provisions it includes.