Senators criticize media, go easy on utility execs over grid security

WASHINGTON - A key panel of senators investigating the security of the nation’s power grid Thursday had mostly softball questions for utility executives and regulators about exposure to assaults like the one by gunmen last year that nearly knocked out electricity in Silicon Valley.

Instead, the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee focused its fury on the news media.

The media, declared Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), has “served to sensationalize the issue of physical grid security instead of helping protect the grid from attack.”

Recent coverage of the April 2013 attack near San Jose, in which a pair of gunmen shot up several transformers at a substation and then escaped into the night, has unnerved utility officials and regulators. On Thursday, the FBI issued a news release asking anyone who may have information about the year-old attack to contact their nearest field office or call 911. The perpetrators, the release said, "should be considered armed and dangerous." 

Media reports since that attack have revealed how security around power stations is so lax that a coordinated series of assaults like the one in San Jose could cause a long-lasting blackout across a wide swath of the country.

The Wall Street Journal enraged the electricity industry earlier this year when it disclosed a federal report that revealed terrorists could trigger a nationwide blackout by bringing down just nine substations. The Journal did not reveal the location of the substations.

“This revelation, with its national security implications, I find extremely troubling,” said Murkowski.

The hearing came a day after the Energy Department released its internal investigation of the leak, which revealed regulators had done little to keep the grid safety report confidential. Investigators expressed alarm that the report appeared to have found its way to the personal computers, laptops, iPhones and copying machines of past and present commission staff.

Regulators and industry officials at the hearing said internal policies have since been revised to protect against such leaks. Then they, too, accused the media of acting irresponsibly.

They then went on to give an update of new procedures they are developing to bulk up security around the power stations. Those procedures came about after lawmakers, alarmed by media reports about the vulnerability of the grid, demanded regulators do something.

The Silicon Valley attack “demonstrated a level of sophistication not previously seen in our sector,” said Sue Kelly, CEO of the American Public Power Assn. But she took umbrage at the suggestion the industry was inattentive to grid security before the media put the spotlight on it. “The notion that recent media stories suddenly spurred our industry to act.. are inaccurate,” she said.

Twitter: @evanhalper

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