Heinrich Renews Push To Protect Energy Grid from Cyber-Attacks

The Securing Energy Infrastructure Act would employ a “retro” approach to safeguard grid at time of increasing cyber threats

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, today renewed his push to protect critical U.S. energy infrastructure from potentially catastrophic cyber-attacks by cosponsoring the Securing Energy Infrastructure Act. The legislation, which was introduced by U.S. Senators Angus King (I-Maine) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), would examine solutions to defend the U.S. energy grid including possibly using a “retro” approach that has shown promise as a safeguard against cyber-attacks by replacing key devices like computer-connected operating systems, which can be vulnerable to cyber-attacks, with less-vulnerable analog and human-operated systems.

"Cybersecurity is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation. The future of warfare is moving further away from the battlefield and closer to the devices and the networks everyday citizens depend on," said Sen. Heinrich. "Protecting our nation from malicious cyber actors requires a comprehensive approach, and keeping our energy infrastructure secure is central to that. I am especially proud that this legislation would rely on the expertise of New Mexico's National Labs in providing technology solutions and developing a national strategy to isolate the energy grid from cyberattacks."

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy warned that the U.S. grid “faces imminent danger” from cyber-attacks. The Department’s Quadrennial Energy Review warns that a widespread power outage caused by a cyber-attack could place at risk the health and safety of millions of citizens.

Top officials within the Intelligence Community have testified that U.S. critical infrastructure are enticing targets to malicious actors. Those officials have also warned that, without action, the U.S. remains vulnerable to cyber-attacks that could result in catastrophic damage to public health and safety, economic security, and national security.

The Securing Energy Infrastructure Act aims to remove vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to access the energy grid through holes in digital software systems. Specifically, it would examine ways to replace automated systems with low-tech redundancies, like manual procedures controlled by human operators. This approach seeks to thwart even the most sophisticated cyber-adversaries who, if they are intent on accessing the grid, would have to actually physically touch the equipment, thereby making cyber-attacks much more difficult. The bill, which was introduced last Congress, received a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

This legislation was inspired in part by Ukraine’s experience in 2015, when a sophisticated cyber-attack on that country’s power grid led to more than 225,000 people being left in the dark. The attack could have been worse if not for the fact that Ukraine relies on manual technology to operate its grid. The bill seeks to build on this concept by studying ways to strategically use “retro” technology to isolate the grid’s most important control systems.

More specifically, the Securing Energy Infrastructure Act would:

  • Establish a two-year pilot program within the National Laboratories to study covered entities and identify new classes of security vulnerabilities, and research and test technology – like analog devices – that could be used to isolate the most critical systems of covered entities from cyber-attacks.
  • Require the establishment of a working group to evaluate the technology solutions proposed by the National Laboratories and to develop a national cyber-informed strategy to isolate the energy grid from attacks. Members of the working group would include federal government agencies, the energy industry, a state or regional energy agency, the National Laboratories, and other groups with relevant experience.
  • Require the Secretary of Energy to submit a report to Congress describing the results of the program, assessing the feasibility of the techniques considered, and outlining the results of the working groups’ evaluation.
  • Define “covered entities” under the bill as segments of the energy sector that have already been designated as entities where a cyber-security incident could result in catastrophic regional or national effects on public health or safety, economic security, or national security.

To text of the legislation is available HERE.