FERC authority limited in protecting against EMP, security risks – FERC director

FERC’s reliability director last week told Homeland Security that FERC’s authority to protect the U.S. grid is limited and its open process for establishing reliability standards, while effective, may be too slow to respond to any extraordinary threats to the system.

The Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies held a hearing Sept. 12 to identify threats to the U.S. power infrastructure from electromagnetic pulses (EMP) caused by specialized weapons or solar storms.

Joseph McClelland, Director of the Office of Electric Reliability of FERC, gave testimony at the hearing alongside Brandon Wales, Director, Homeland Infrastructure Threat Risk Analysis Center; Michael Aimone, Director, Business Enterprise Integration, Department of Defense; and Chris Beck, President, Electric Infrastructure Security Council.

McClelland outlined in his testimony FERC’s specific authorities with respect to its ability to respond to security threats to the U.S. power grid. In its partnership with NERC to ensure reliability of the grid, FERC’s jurisdiction falls to the bulk power system, excluding all distribution facilities and certain defense infrastructure.

“The current interpretation of ‘bulk power system’ also excludes some transmission,” McClelland said in his testimony. “[That includes] virtually all of the grid facilities in certain large cities such as New York, thus precluding commission action to mitigate cyber or other national security threats to reliability that involve such facilities and major population areas.”

He also noted that FERC’s authority to provide standards that would defend against certain threats exists largely in an open and public development process with NERC that can take years to complete.

FERC’s authority, he said, “does not allow it to author standards or to require quick action to protect the U.S. from the EMP threat or other national security threats to the reliability of our transmission and power system.”

McClelland outlined specific threats to the bulk power system from EMP attacks and the measures FERC is taking to mitigate those threats. Following on considerable study of the EMP threat in the U.S. since 2001, FERC is considering comments filed after its April 2012 technical conference to discuss reliability as it is affected by geomagnetic disturbances.

“The existing reliability standards do not address EMP vulnerabilities,” McClelland said. “Protecting the electric generation, transmission and distribution systems from severe damage due to an EMP-related event would involve vulnerability assessments at every level of electric infrastructure.”

In his conclusion, McClelland said that new legislation should give the federal government authority to take decisive action in advance of a cyber or physical national security incident on the U.S. grid.