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Real Clear Energy: Confronting Cyber Attacks to the US Electricity Grid

August 27, 2018
Opinion Editorial

The U.S. electricity grid that powers our homes, businesses, and entire economy is increasingly under attack from hostile actors. These threats to our energy sector pose enormous risks to our national and economic security.

When the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) was organized in the late 1970s, Congress could not have possibly imagined the cybersecurity challenges we face today. While the “Internet of Things” has allowed our grid to become more resilient, reliable, and efficient, it has also created myriad new security challenges that are rapidly evolving on a daily basis. Both the federal government and energy industry have a shared responsibility to ensure we are prepared for these challenges. In Congress, we are taking steps to modernize DOE to respond to the new realities of the 21st Century.

A core part of the agency’s mission is securing our nation’s critical electric infrastructure and other energy systems. As we’ve seen in recent years—with the growth of digital communications, the increased sophistication of hackers, and the complicated interconnections throughout our energy systems—DOE’s role has only become even more important.

With this in mind, Congressman Bobby Rush, the ranking Democratic member of the Energy Subcommittee, and I introduced H.R. 5174, the Energy Emergency Leadership Act. Our legislation is a bipartisan and practical amendment to update DOE’s decades-old core statute, the Department of Energy Organization Act. It elevates the energy security and emergency functions to a senior point person in agency leadership, reflecting its strategic importance across the agency, government, and nation. 

Elevating these responsibilities to a single Assistant Secretary will give them full attention and promote streamlined intergovernmental and interagency communication. It will also encourage better coordination and more efficient information sharing with industry leaders, which will enhance DOE’s ability to appropriately and quickly address cybersecurity threats and other energy-related emergencies.

In addition, this leadership position will be tasked with ensuring we have effective planning, response and restoration capabilities when man-made and natural disasters disrupt our energy supplies—something the tragic weather last year on the Gulf Coast and in Puerto Rico put in sharp relief. 

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recognizes the importance of fortifying our cyber infrastructure and has created a new outward facing Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response. Our bipartisan legislation compliments the Secretary’s effort, but it also recognizes that this energy emergency mission will remain vital to the nation for years to come. To ensure continued leadership through future administrations, this mission should be codified in the Department of Energy Organization Act. Doing so will also enhance accountability at the agency and allow the proper congressional oversight of such critical daily functions.

Under the leadership of Chairman Greg Walden, the Energy and Commerce Committee has made it a priority to be forward thinking and modernize approaches to 21st Century threats. In the digital age, strengthening our cyber defense capabilities is more important than ever. Given the role electricity plays in our daily lives, and overall wellbeing as a society, we need a robust strategy to protect our energy grid before it’s too late.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg represents Michigan’s 7th Congressional District and is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This op-ed was originally published on Real Clear Energy on August 27.