The following is a Viewpoint by Major General Bob Dees, U.S. Army, Retired.
The resilience of America's energy grid is critical to our national security. Whether with traditional threats to physical infrastructure or rapidly emerging cyber threats, government policy in securing America's electrical power grid must be based on clear-headed analysis and market principles.
In May of last year, a memo from the Department of Energy revealed that the Trump Administration, citing "national security," planned to subsidize coal and nuclear plants. The national security rationale does not hold up.
The conversion to generating electricity from natural gas instead of coal is a function of a competitive marketplace and there is no evidence that natural gas transmission is uniquely vulnerable to cybersecurity threats. In fact, the opposite is likely the case.
"Cyber threats to our national energy infrastructure are not new and there is no 'silver bullet' solution."
For years, utility companies have been shuttering coal and nuclear power plants because the facilities are reaching the end of their service life and have become expensive to operate. In their place, energy providers are constructing power generation facilities that run on clean and affordable natural gas that has become more abundant in the wake of the fracking boom. Because of these market realities, even power providers operating in the heart of coal country such as FirstEnergy and Vistra Energy have announced their intention to close plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania over the next few years.
In a clear move to shield the coal sector from the laws of supply and demand, the Trump Administration is invoking the dated Defense Production Act of 1950. Part of the justification for propping up aging nuclear and coal energy production is that these facilities are somehow less vulnerable to cyber threats than natural gas pipeline transmission. This is a dubious assertion.
Cyber threats to our national energy infrastructure are not new and there is no "silver bullet" solution.
"The federal government and private sector, working independently and together, have long been at work to minimize the risk of a catastrophic cyberattack in each node of our national grid."
The federal government and private sector, working independently and together, have long been at work to minimize the risk of a catastrophic cyberattack in each node of our national grid. Even before 9/11, the Information Sharing and Analysis Center has been in place, enabling oil and natural gas pipeline operators to share cyber threat intelligence with each other and the federal government.
The robust public-private partnerships forged by the natural gas industry provide a unique cybersecurity advantage that other fuels don't enjoy.
The Oil and Natural Gas Information Sharing and Analysis Center allows companies to share insights and threat analytics, keeping stakeholders abreast of the latest cyber threats. The American Petroleum Institute recently published a report on the industry's cybersecurity standards that affirmed: "A layered defense approach provides optimal protection in the rapidly evolving cyber threat landscape, as no one layer of defense or technology will ever be completely effective. This approach creates a landscape that is much more challenging for an attacker to fully penetrate — providing necessary time to implement defensive response measures."
Natural gas system production, transmission and underground storage is especially flexible and elastic. The system is characterized by multiple fail-safes, redundancies and back-ups. Natural gas pipeline companies invest heavily to protect industrial control systems utilized for pipelines. In contrast, aging nuclear and coal production systems may be more vulnerable because of their reliance upon legacy information technology systems.
"In this arena, there is no room for politically driven pseudo-rationales for favoring one energy source over another."
Even as market forces determine what power generation sources make the most sense economically, each node in the electric power system strives every day to stay one step ahead in the "Cyber Space Race." From operator level cyber hygiene up to national level prevention and crisis response, success in this critical mission requires clear-headed analysis by decision makers in government and the private sector.
In this arena, there is no room for politically driven pseudo-rationales for favoring one energy source over another. We've had enough of this with the green energy loan guarantee debacle and the high-profile failures of companies such as Solyndra.
The Trump Administration should resist interfering with the very market forces that will advance America's energy independence while simultaneously promoting an "all hands-on deck" approach by government and industry that will ensure the nation's energy grid is resilient to the bow wave of threats that could be on the horizon.
Major General Bob Dees, U.S. Army, Retired, was Exercise Director for the first full-scale U.S. cyberwar exercise, Eligible Receiver '97, and subsequently provided cyber expertise to the Presidential Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection. He remains engaged in the "Cyber Space Race," as well as resilience initiatives at individual, leader and national levels.