Protecting the power grid: A bigger role for government?

WASHINGTON -- As utilities scramble to secure the nation's power grid against terrorist attack, some in Congress are skeptical that electric companies are up to the job.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) renewed their push Wednesday to create an expanded role for government in policing the industry. Legislation they introduced, the Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act, or GRID Act, would give federal regulators power to order utilities to fix gaps in security.


This marks the third time the prominent duo has proposed such a measure. But this time around, their idea appears to have new momentum.

A previous version passed the House but languished in the Senate. Utility industry officials had argued that management of the grid is best left to those who deal with its highly complicated tangle of algorithms, transmission lines and substations day to day. Some lawmakers expressed concern regulators could order costly measures that drive up electricity rates.

More recently, however, an attack last year on a Pacific Gas & Electric substation near San Jose has heightened concern about security. Using simple assault rifles, two attackers caused millions of dollars in damage and almost knocked out power to Silicon Valley. Nearly a year later, the FBI has yet to make any arrests.

Security experts and utility industry officials worry the attack was a prelude to something bigger.

Nerves were further rattled when the Wall Street Journal reported on a confidential report circulated at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that said attackers would need to knock out just nine electricity substations — the newspaper did not reveal which ones — to trigger a nationwide blackout.

"The security of the electric grid is a critical and urgent issue," Waxman said in a statement. "We will remain vulnerable to attacks that could cause devastating blackouts until security is increased and regulatory gaps are closed."

Security protocols are currently managed by North American Electric Reliability Corp., an industry group that generally proceeds at a pace security experts describe as glacial.

The group is reluctant to impose rules without a consensus in the industry, which can take years to develop. Markey has warned that the balky process is dangerous at a time when attacks are increasing in intensity and sophistication.

"Unless we act now, the United States will continue to remain vulnerable," he said in a statement.

Twitter: @evanhalper