Lawmakers call for pilot program to test for energy sector vulnerabilities

Lawmakers call for pilot program to test for energy sector vulnerabilities

Senators want a federal pilot program created to test for vulnerabilities in the energy sector, as concerns rise about cyber threats to the U.S. electric grid. 

The issue took center stage at a meeting of a Senate subcommittee with oversight of the Department of Energy on Tuesday afternoon. 

“The electric grid is essential to our lives and is also the lifeblood of the economy,” said Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Wealthy outsiders threaten to shake up GOP Senate primaries MORE (D-W.Va.), ranking member of the subcommittee on energy.

“I believe today’s hearing is an important start to a longer conversation about the security of our grid. As the electric industry has increased its reliance on digital technologies to better serve consumers, the grid has grown more vulnerable to cyberattack.”

Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting Trump pushing Maine gov to run for Senate: report Schumer: Franken should resign MORE (I-Maine) has introduced legislation with bipartisan support that would set up a two-year pilot program to identify security vulnerabilities in parts of the energy sector. 

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On Tuesday, Manchin cheered the bill as a “step in the right direction” to explore ways to better secure the electric grid.

King introduced the bill in January with a bipartisan set of cosponsors, including Sens. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischMcConnell works to salvage tax bill The Hill's Whip List: Where Republicans stand on Senate tax bill Senate ethics panel resumes Menendez probe after judge declares mistrial MORE (R-Idaho), Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Senators introduce bipartisan gun background check bill Dem senator: 'Super close' on bipartisan deal on guns MORE (D-N.M.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids Study: ObamaCare bills backed by Collins would lower premiums Right scrambles GOP budget strategy MORE (R-Maine) and Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoOvernight Regulation: Feds push to clarify regs on bump stocks | Interior wants Trump to shrink two more monuments | Navajo Nation sues over monument rollback | FCC won't delay net neutrality vote | Senate panel approves bill easing Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Finance: GOP delays work on funding bill amid conservative demands | Senate panel approves Fed nominee Powell | Dodd-Frank rollback advances | WH disputes report Mueller subpoenaed Trump bank records Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank MORE (R-Idaho). King, an Independent, caucuses with the Democrats.

His bill would direct the Department of Energy within the national laboratories to partner with entities in the energy sector to find security vulnerabilities as well as research and test technology to protect security gaps. 

The bill would also set up a working group — including government officials and outside stakeholders — to develop a “cyber-informed engineering strategy.” 

On Tuesday, senators pointed to hacks against Ukraine’s power grid in 2015 and 2016 as evidence that such a cyberattack could be waged in the United States.

“If we aren’t prepared for cyberattacks, a Ukraine-like situation could take place in the United States,” Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDems look to use Moore against GOP McConnell: 'No change of heart' on Roy Moore US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE (R-Colo.), who chairs the subcommittee, said. 

“We know it’s coming,” King said. “We just don’t know where and when, and the risks are enormous.”

The Maine senator said his bill drew on details from the Ukraine power grid hack in 2015, and is meant to spur technological research to find ways to make the electric grid resilient in the event of a cyberattack.

“What we’re talking about here is not to rebuild or re-engineer the entire grid but to really ask the question of, are there some back-to-the-future answers at critical points that might protect us from the kind of attack we know is coming,” King explained. 

Hackers have demonstrated more interest in the energy sector, according to witness testimony. Benjamin Fowke, who heads Minneapolis-based utility company Xcel Energy, said Tuesday that the company identified more than 500,000 individual cyberattacks on its networks last year. Additionally, Fowke reported a 10 percent increase in these intrusions in the first months of 2017 over the previous year. 

King particularly singled out Russia more broadly as a nation-state leveraging cyberattacks to achieve strategic aims. Ukraine has turned up evidence tying Russian hackers to the 2015 power grid hack. 

“What we’re seeing here is the nature of warfare changing before our eyes, and the Russians particularly are playing a weak hand very effectively, and it’s on the cheap,” King said Tuesday.

“For the cost of one tank, they can hire 500 hackers or trolls, and we know this is a part of their foreign policy strategy in terms of elections, in terms of other kinds of destruction to western countries.”