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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) ManchinPavlich: The claim Trump let the mentally ill get guns is a lie Toomey to introduce bill broadening background checks for firearms Scott Walker backs West Virginia attorney general in GOP Senate primary 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 KingLawmakers are failing in duty to respond to the American people Congress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks GOP senators float fallback plan to protect Dreamers 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 RischTrump official denies US planning 'bloody nose' strike on North Korea Senate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA Government needs to help small businesses follow regulations MORE (R-Idaho), Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichCongress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks Senate rejects centrist immigration bill after Trump veto threat Dem senators want list of White House officials with interim security clearances MORE (D-N.M.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand FCC to officially rescind net neutrality rules on Thursday MORE (R-Maine) and Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoBeware of the bank deregulation Trojan horse Senate Republicans call on Trump to preserve NAFTA Dems rip Trump's Fed pick as Senate panel mulls three key nominees 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 GardnerThe siren of Baton Rouge Senate confirms John Demers to head DOJ national security division Senate rejects bipartisan measure as immigration votes begin 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.”