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) ManchinElection Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Morrisey accuses Manchin of 'lying' to Trump, attacks ‘liberal’ record 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 KingBipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure Lawmakers say Trump tariffs are threatening local newspapers Senate adds members to pro-NATO group 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 RischGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE Senate takes symbolic shot at Trump tariffs GOP lawmaker presses Bolton to examine Obama administration's response to Russian cyberattacks MORE (R-Idaho), Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichCNN congressional correspondent talks about her early love of trolls and family Overnight Energy: DNC to reject fossil fuel donations | Regulators see no security risk in coal plant closures | Senate committee rejects Trump EPA, Interior budgets Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures MORE (D-N.M.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: Novartis pulls back on drug price hikes | House Dems launch Medicare for All caucus | Trump officials pushing ahead on Medicaid work requirements Senate panel to vote next week on banning 'gag clauses' in pharmacy contracts GOP senator: Trump's changing stances on Russian threat are 'dizzying' MORE (R-Maine) and Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoTrump pick to face grilling over family separations On The Money: Commerce to review uranium imports | Lawmakers urge Trump not to impose auto tariffs | White House wants steeper cuts to EPA funding | Google hit with massive B fine Dems call for hearings on Trump’s CFPB nominee to be put on hold 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 GardnerRepublican bill aims to deter NATO members from using Russian pipeline Congress must catch up to voters on marijuana issue Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash 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.”