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Moniz: Energy Department needs new ‘national security’ powers

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said he was not sure if the Trump administration would seek his counsel, or put him on “speed dial” as he put it, to discuss the recommendations. But he was confident that U.S. lawmakers will digest his agency’s final round of advice on the challenges facing America’s energy system. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

January 06, 2017

President Obama’s energy chief recommended Friday that the Energy Department be given a new “national security” role in protecting the nation’s electricity grid against cyberattacks from terrorist groups and hostile countries.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz made the recommendations as one of his final actions before President-elect Trump’s inauguration Jan. 20. The policy suggestions were outlined in the Quadrennial Energy Review released Friday, underscoring the heightened threats posed to the U.S. electricity grid.

“The electricity sector is experiencing rapid changes that are testing traditional regulatory frameworks and creating new and more complex interdependencies,” which is where the threats are emerging, according to a report summary.

“Almost every economic sector is reliant on a more interconnected, data-driven and electricity-dependent system,” the summary said. “The increased digitization of the electricity sector brings multiple consumer and system benefits, and creates new and more severe vulnerabilities to cyberattacks.”

Moniz discussed the report with lawmakers Friday, and he made a special point to underscore the national security recommendations made in the 500-page document, which is modeled after the Defense Department’s quadrennial defense reviews.

Moniz said he was not sure if the Trump administration would seek his counsel, or put him on “speed dial” as he put it, to discuss the recommendations. But he was confident that U.S. lawmakers will digest his agency’s final round of advice on the challenges facing America’s energy system.

The national security recommendations include giving the Energy Department a new national security role by amending the Federal Power Act, which regulates the utility industry, to designate the grid as a national security effort.

The new amendments to the electricity law would “clarify and affirm that the electricity system — from bulk power to the distribution — is a national security asset, making its protection a fundamental federal responsibility.”

The report also recommends that the nation’s grid watchdog, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, assist the Energy Department by adopting regional “integrated electricity security” plans and standards “to assist” the agency “in carrying out its authorities to address national security imperatives to protect the electricity systems.” The commission already has begun a similar rulemaking on information sharing when it comes to grid security in a process Congress directed it to take under a 2015 bill to address highway funding.

Moniz assured Friday that he is recommending the commission be given “narrow” authority when it comes to addressing the threats, but that the broader national security role be held within the Energy Department itself.

In the past, such recommendations for the commission have been met by controversy within the utility industry, because they feared the regulator would be given unlimited authority to dictate actions based on threats that the industry had a limited knowledge to understand without special security clearances.

The commission oversees and regulates the nation’s wholesale power markets that intertwine with states’ retail market authority. States have sought to ensure that the commission stays out of their markets, but cybersecurity is one area that could drive the federal government deeper into their jurisdiction, experts say.