Senate energy bill aims to fight power grid hackers

Senate energy bill aims to fight power grid hackers
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The Senate’s wide-ranging energy reform bill includes a number of cybersecurity provisions that backers say will help bolster the power grid's lagging digital defenses.

A section dedicated to cyber threats would empower the Department of Energy (DOE) to take swifter action in the event of a major hack, authorizing it to direct energy companies in a cyber crisis.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE (R-Ky.) touted the cyber passages on Tuesday while encouraging his colleagues to vote for the bill, which is expected to pass sometime Thursday.

“The Energy Policy Modernization Act is designed to defend our national energy grid from terrorist cyberattacks,” he said of the legislation from Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiRepublicans jockey for position on immigration GOP senator knocks Trump: 'Not a fan of governing by tweet' How the effort to replace ObamaCare failed MORE (R-Alaska) and Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellUse tax reform to strengthen what’s working: The low-income housing tax credit Senate energy bill is misguided gift to Trump’s dirty fossil fuel agenda Help states solve their housing problems with the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act MORE (D-Wash.).

McConnell highlighted a number of the specific provisions, including one that authorizes additional cybersecurity research. Other clauses would also direct the agency to work more closely on fighting cyberattacks with countries like Canada and Mexico, which are also connected to the North American electrical grid.

The bill, McConnell said, “would help deter attacks by erecting stronger cybersecurity defenses, and it would help provide for faster and more effective responses when threats do arise."

The energy bill comes amid growing concerns of power grid vulnerability from both sides of the aisle in Congress and the White House.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE has even focused on the issue on the campaign trail, calling for power grid upgrades to increase cybersecurity in a sweeping energy infrastructure policy statement released in September.

Security experts have long warned that energy companies are attuned to these cyber dangers, but are still scrambling to catch up. Researchers say a successful cyberattack could cause massive blackouts, driving up mortality rates at powerless hospitals and disrupting the country’s water supply as electric pumps shut down.

In 2014, the energy sector was the most targeted of the nation’s critical infrastructure industry sectors, accounting for a third of cyber incidents, according to a government report.

National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers even acknowledged in a congressional hearing that China and likely “one or two” other countries are currently sitting on the grid, with the ability to literally turn out the lights if they wanted to.

Rogers said these nations, which likely include Russia and possibly Iran, “are deterred only by the fear of U.S. retaliation.”

The Senate’s energy bill isn’t expected to face considerable opposition after lawmakers on Tuesday voted down a slate of partisan amendments.

Democrats are still pushing Republicans to include an amendment that would earmark up to $600 million in federal assistance for the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

The House in December approved a Republican-backed energy policy bill that included several similar cyber provisions meant to fortify the nation’s power grid defenses against hackers.

But President Obama has threatened to veto the lower chamber’s measure over a number of regulatory provisions, including one to allow crude oil exports and speed up permitting for pipelines and transmission lines that cross international borders.