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Threats to the Electric Grid and the Sense of Congress

Bipartisan agreement about threats to the electric grid

Threats to the Electric Grid

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY)

There has been little bipartisan agreement in Congress about anything in the last decade. Healthcare, taxes, the budget – you name it, they disagree on it. There is one glaring exception: The threats to the electric grid from a variety of man-made and natural threats. They all seem to agree on that, but for some reason have come up with little legislation to actually protect it.

To be fair, Congress did finally pass the language of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA) in section 1913 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (NDAA). But this legislation, while important, does not actually harden the electric grid. It orders more studies (and we already have two decades of studies), and perhaps most importantly, it requires the Department of Homeland Security to “include in national planning frameworks the threat of an EMP or GMD event.” While this is a critical step, it could take years for this to filter down have an impact on preparedness of communities for a catastrophic event.

Threats to the Electric Grid

Rep. Trent Franks

Also, hopefully, if the NDAA for 2018 (H.R. 2810: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018) is signed by the President, section 1691 would reestablish the “Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States From Electromagnetic Pulse Attacks and Similar Events.” The previous EMP commission was allowed to expire this year and reestablishing it is another positive step – but again, a step that could take years to actually address threats to the electric grid in a concrete way.

The problem is, we need action now. If there was a nationwide power outage due to a cyber-attack, GMD, EMP or any other cause, we are not ready and we have no plan. We won’t be ready a month from now or two years from now.

Even if comprehensive legislation to protect and harden the grid was passed today, it could take years for adequate protection to actually happen. The rule making process is complex and time consuming. The thousands of companies that comprise “the grid” aren’t going to be able to immediately press a button and give us a hardened grid – meaningful action to address threats to the electric grid will take time – perhaps years. And, there is no such comprehensive legislation currently pending anyway.

So notwithstanding the above positive developments, what we have today is a country that is still vulnerable to existential threats that would kill millions of Americans.

The sense of Congress: failed bipartisan efforts to address threats to the electric grid

I’d like to highlight a few of the current bipartisan efforts – both House and Senate – which have keyed into this issue and, to their credit, tried to protect us. (For a comprehensive study of documents, click here.)

Senate

• Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has been vocal about threats to the electric grid [http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/top-senator-electric-grid-at-risk-of-attack-would-disrupt-our-way-of-life/article/2635772].

House of Representatives

These are just a few recent examples – I can show you (click here) two decades of other examples. It is clear that there is bipartisan agreement and concern about the threats to the electric grid.

So what’s the problem in getting grid protecting legislation passed? Good question and I wish I had an easy answer. For some reason, a top-down solution from Congress has been elusive.

Perhaps we need a bottom-up solution

Let me go back to a bipartisan effort in 2012. This was, in my opinion, the most important piece of failed legislation – and it was only a resolution – not even a proposed law. Maybe best way of addressing threats to the electric grid isn’t a top-down approach. If for whatever reason, Congress can’t do that (and for two decades they have tried), perhaps there is another way: from the bottom-up.

If individuals and communities were more resilient, the threats to the electric grid can be mitigated. In other words, the reason that millions of people will die if the grid goes down for a long period of time is because we are not ready. We are not resilient. We are 100% dependent on the electric grid for everything that makes life possible – food, water, fuel, transportation, medical systems, etc.

What if we made communities in America more resilient? What if communities across America were thinking about and planning for survival in a worst case scenario? Believe it or not, there is a lot that a community can do to prepare and mitigate – even if we can’t depend on the federal or state government to save us.

Threats to the Electric GridA bipartisan group in the 112th Congress thought of this. On August 2, 2012 Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) along with Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) and Rep. Hank Johnson Jr. (D-GA) introduced H. Res. 762: Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding community-based civil defense and power generation.

This resolution, if passed, would have told communities across America that they need to be prepared to be on their own for a long period of time without outside help in the event of a “nationwide collapse of critical infrastructure that could last months or longer.” It further:

(1) encourages every community to develop its own “civil defense program” working with citizens, leaders, and institutions ranging from local fire halls, schools, and faith-based organizations, to create sustainable local infrastructure and planning capacity so that it might mitigate high-impact scenarios and be better prepared to survive and recover from these worst-case disaster scenarios and be better able to affordably and sustainably meet the needs of the community in times of peace and tranquility;

(2) encourages every citizen to develop an individual emergency plan to prepare for the absence of government assistance for extended periods;

(3) encourages each local community to foster the capability of providing at least 20 percent of its own critical needs such as local power generation, food, and water, while protecting local infrastructure whenever possible from the threats that threaten centralized infrastructure, and do so with the urgency and importance inherent in an all-of-nation civil defense program developed by citizens and their local communities; and

(4) encourages State governments and Federal agencies to support the ability of local communities to become stronger, self-reliant, and better able to assist neighboring communities in times of great need.

The reason that this is such an important resolution is that we can’t wait years for a top-down solution that may or may not ever come. (After two decades of Congressional failure to protect the electric grid many of us have our doubts.) Unfortunately, H. Res. 762 was never acted upon and is now buried in the annals of failed legislation. Few people even know that it exists.

We can start protecting our communities now. A Congressional resolution like H. Res. 762 would wake many communities up to the facts. Presently, most, if not all, communities, towns and cities across America believe that if something bad happens, somebody (e.g., the federal or state government) will come and rescue them. The fact is, in a national scale disaster, communities will be on their own. The cavalry will not be coming.

Emergency preparedness begins with individuals and families – then communities, towns and cities. We can no longer sit idly by while Congress sits idly by.

Congress: if you want to protect America against threats to the electric grid, let’s start from the bottom-up. Reintroduce, and pass, a Congressional resolution “expressing the sense of [Congress] regarding community-based civil defense and power generation.”

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GridEx: Is This Exercise Enough to Protect Critical Infrastructures?

GridEx bottom line upfront

GridEx is a biennial exercise run by North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). The latest iteration, GridEx IV, was held on November 15-16, 2017. Most Americans have never heard of GridEx and didn’t even know it was taking place. If fact, most people don’t really have a clear understanding of what “the grid” is and what role NERC (a private not-for-profit corporation) and the federal government play in regulating the grid.

Bottom line up front:

  • GridEx is a voluntary exercise designed to test the grid’s response to large-scale power outages.
  • GridEx lacks transparency – very little public information is available. NERC says: “Due to the sensitive nature of the scenario discussion, this exercise program is not open to the general public or the media. A public report will be available after the exercise concludes.”
  • GridEx is held for two days every two years.
  • Very limited overview reports are available to the public for the last three GridEx exercises. They don’t say much.

GridEx is too little, not often enough and with little transparency. While any exercise involving testing the bulk power system’s capabilities, resilience and response is admirable and seemingly useful, it seems to me that GridEx is the minimum necessary for the bulk power industry to avoid having the federal government step in – which no industry wants.

But is GridEx sufficient to protect the United States from the catastrophic, existential threats to the power grid? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

What is the grid?

NERC GridEx

The bulk power system – or “the grid” – is not really one thing. The grid is actually thousands of companies, both public and private sector, that operate in an interconnected system to facilitate the generation, transmission and distribution of electrical power. The grid is made up of power generation – such as power plants, wind turbines and solar farms, high voltage transmission lines that span long distances across the country and local distribution lines which bring the power from the street to your house.

This interconnected (and vulnerable) patchwork is what allows the United States to support her human population. Everything that enables 325 million people in the country to survive is wholly reliant on the grid. All of our critical infrastructures – food, water, fuel, transportation and medical systems are all 100% dependent on the grid.

How is the grid regulated?

GridEx FERCThe grid is self-regulated (similarly to Wall Street). The federal government under current law can’t tell “the grid” what to do. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is a not-for-profit corporation. It acts as the self-regulatory organization “whose mission is to assure the reliability of the bulk power system (BPS) in North America.” The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is an independent federal agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil. FERC’s specific authority over the electric grid is to “oversee the reliability of the bulk power system.” The regulatory scheme of the grid between NERC and FERC is mind-numbingly complex. (Just the way most industries prefer their relationship with the federal government to be.)

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 added Section 215 to the Federal Power Act. This gave FERC the authority to certify an organization as an “Electric Reliability Organization” (ERO) which would develop reliability standards for the industry, subject to FERC’s approval. Yes, you read that right – the industry writes its own reliability standards.

On July 20, 2006, FERC certified NERC as the ERO. Other entities objected and administrative appeals and litigation ensued. Section 215 does give FERC the authority to “upon its own motion or upon complaint, may order the Electric Reliability Organization to submit to the Commission a proposed reliability standard or a modification to a reliability standard that addresses a specific matter if the Commission considers such a new or modified reliability standard appropriate to carry out this section.” In English, FERC can order NERC to develop a particular standard and submit it for FERC’s review and approval, but this again is very time consuming.

Thus, FERC (the government) can’t easily tell NERC (the industry) what to do: There is a convoluted and time consuming rule making process involved. Before FERC can order NERC to take any action, they have to issue a proposed rule, solicit and consider any public comments (including those of the regulated entities and their representatives) and then issue a final rule (which is subject to industry lawsuit). This can take an incredibly long time. In terms of “sausage making” this rule making process is no way to get anything done quickly. A final rule can literally take years to issue. In some contexts, perhaps this regulatory scheme makes sense, but the protection of the grid and the dependent critical infrastructures is a national security issue – an issue of survival for families and the country. But it gets worse.

There is no federal law that says that the grid has to protect itself from hazards and threats. In fact, as previously noted, “itself” is thousands of separate companies that regulate themselves through NERC. Our very survival is dependent on the industry’s willingness to do the right thing. They are not required to do the right thing. This is why, in my estimation, GridEx is the bare minimum that the industry felt they had to do to avoid the government getting off its slow and lumbering buttocks and doing something drastic to protect the grid – and the United States – from catastrophe.

GridEx is not sufficient to protect the United States from Catastrophe

The only thing standing between America and catastrophe are thousands of moving parts, a self-regulatory organization (NERC) and a regulator (FERC) with little actual power to protect us. Moreover, as we saw from the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003, a weakness in one of these thousands of moving parts can have cataclysmic consequences for the whole. In 2003, untrimmed foliage in Ohio started a chain of failures which resulted in a blackout for over 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada.

So, with the United States facing increasing threats from cyberattack, terrorism, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) as well as the traditional threats to the grid, is a biennial (once every two years) two-day voluntary exercise enough? In the last GridEx (2015), only “364 organizations across North America participated in GridEx III, including industry, law enforcement, and government agencies.” 364 organizations out of thousands voluntarily participated.

The public reports from the three past GridEx exercises are not confidence inspiring. They lack detail about how the exercises were conducted. They are all spun to make each exercise seemingly a “success.” All objectives were met. Perhaps they were, but there is not enough detail to really assess how effective these exercises actually were. If you want to decide for yourself, here are the public reports.

In order for GridEx to be more meaningful, here is what should happen.

  • GridEx participation should be mandatory – this is an issue of national security.
  • GridEx should be held annually.
  • “Lessons Learned” should be turned to action items for NERC, FERC and DHS.
  • More information should be available to the public and press – In the GridEx III report, it actually said that they constructed the exercise reporting to thwart Freedom of Information Act requests!
  • The Department of Homeland Security should use this opportunity to implement the provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2017 that requires DHS to “include in national planning frameworks the threat of an EMP or GMD event.”
  • Congress should insist that the results of future GridEx events be reported to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees.
  • Finally, local emergency management organizations across the country need to participate.

In sum, I am not against GridEx by any stretch of the imagination. I just think in its present form, GridEx is a paper tiger. And we live in a real jungle.

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What is Civil Defense and why don’t we have it?

Civil defense gradually morphed into emergency management.

There are several good documents that give us the history of civil defense in the United States. Here is one from FEMA and here is an interesting manual (FEMA 107) from 1986. (Thank you to the Civil Defense Museum for making this available to us!)

Civil Defense: Why We Need a Congressional ResolutionIt can be hard to parse out the many reasons and policy shifts that gradually moved us from “civil defense” to “emergency management” but today the term “civil defense” has fallen into disuse. Is there a difference? Strictly speaking, perhaps not as the definition and principles of emergency management cover many of the elements of making a community resilient (e.g., civil defense). According to FEMA, the vision is that “emergency management seeks to promote safer, less vulnerable communities with the capacity to cope with hazards and disasters.” The mission is that “Emergency Management protects communities by coordinating and integrating all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.”

Civil defense is defined variously as the organization and training of civilians for the protection of lives and property during and after an attack, sabotage or natural disaster. (See Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com and Collins English Dictionary.)

Arguably, everything in the definition of civil defense can be extrapolated deep within in the mission and vision of emergency management – but are we doing it? Specifically, are we organizing and training civilians to play key roles in a community’s survival?

The fatal flaw of our emergency management system.

The strength of our emergency management system is its ability to call in outside resources. When an incident – be it a structure fire, accident or tornado – overwhelms the local resources, we call in surrounding towns. For a larger regional disaster, like a hurricane or earthquake, we can call in state and federal resources.

We can argue the efficiency of the state or federal responses in particular historical disasters, but generally the system works as advertised in local and regional disasters. This makes incidents like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria actually “best case scenarios” – best case meaning that outside resources were immediately available to deploy into the disaster area.

However, our emergency management system has one fatal flaw: it always assumes that outside resources will soon be available.

What if the “disaster area” was the United States?

But what happens in a national scale disaster where outside resources are not available and may not be available for a long period of time (like weeks or months)? In this scenario – let’s say a nationwide blackout from a GMD or cyberattack – your town is on its own. All you have is what you have now, and you face immediate life-threatening problems. After one week, there you sit in the EOC, powered by a generator that will soon run out of gas.

  • The power is completely out for the foreseeable future.
  • Your local ham radio operator reports that the entire country is in turmoil.
  • People are panicking – the stores and pharmacies have been looted.
  • The police don’t have the resources to maintain order.
  • Water and sewer service is out. Well pumps don’t work without electricity.
  • People will soon run out of whatever food they have.
  • There are reports of numerous fires – the fire department can’t respond.
  • The medical facilities are overwhelmed, have no power and limited supplies.
  • People are at risk of exposure to the elements and disease.
  • There is no help coming – your town is on its own.

This worst nightmare has become even worse – everybody is looking to you, the emergency manager, for answers. Whether you like it or not, you own this mess.

This worst case scenario could happen. The federal government over the last two decades has studied this issue and held multiple hearings on the existential threat to the U.S. that the loss of the power grid poses. However, no action has been taken to harden the grid from these threats. The only meaningful legislation that has passed, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (section 1913 of the NDAA, December 23, 2016) only requires more federal studies and that the Department of Homeland Security “include in national planning frameworks the threat of an EMP or GMD event.” While this is a positive step, it will take years to have an impact.

Q: What are we missing? A: Civil Defense

Take the emergency management vision and mission statements and eliminate any outside resources – just focus on your town or jurisdiction and its inherent capabilities and assets. Your vision becomes the need to promote [a] safer, less vulnerable community with the [internal] capacity to cope with hazards and disasters. Your mission becomes to protect [your] community by coordinating and integrating all [internal] activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters.

Civil Defense LogoWhat we are missing is the “civil defense” component of organizing and training civilians to play key roles in a community’s survival. This is not a new concept. In August of 2012, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced House Resolution 762. The resolution never saw a vote and died with the 112th Congress.

The proposed resolution:

(1) encourages every community to develop its own “civil defense program” working with citizens, leaders, and institutions, ranging from local fire halls, schools, and faith-based organizations, to create sustainable local infrastructure and planning capacity, so that it might mitigate high-impact scenarios and be better prepared to survive and recover from these worst-case disaster scenarios and be better able to affordably and sustainably meet the needs of the community in times of peace and tranquility;

(2) encourages every citizen to develop an individual emergency plan to prepare for the absence of government assistance for extended periods;

(3) encourages each local community to foster the capability of providing at least 20 percent of its own critical needs, such as local power generation, food, and water, while protecting local infrastructure whenever possible from the threats that threaten centralized infrastructure; and to do so with the urgency and importance inherent in an all-of-nation civil defense program developed by citizens and their local communities; and

(4) encourages state governments and federal agencies to support the ability of local communities to become stronger, self-reliant, and better able to assist neighboring communities in times of great need.

I think this resolution speaks for itself, and it is unfortunate that it didn’t pass. However, a good idea does not need to pass Congress to be a good idea.

Your community needs a civil defense plan now

There is an existential threat to your community. We can no longer sit passively while Congress sits passively. If you don’t want to own the worst case scenario, you need to take action. Your community needs a civil defense plan. You can build it from scratch or start with these recommendations.

The basic concept is simple:

  • A civil defense organization in your town can be organized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
  • Focus the organization on planning and education for the basics of survival:
    • Food
    • Water
    • Shelter
    • Security
  • Integrate the civil defense organization into all aspects of your emergency management efforts.

The problems that would threaten your community’s survival have solutions, but only if you act ahead of time. After the power goes out, an army of emergency managers in logo embossed golf shirts and cargo pants can’t help you.

It takes a village. Your village.

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