USA Today’s Steve Reilly on Power Grid Attacks

USA Today’s Steve Reilly on Power Grid Attacks
 Monday, 30 Mar 2015 07:48 AM

By Robert Feinberg

 Steve Reilly, investigative reporter and data specialist for USA Today, appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal March 29 to talk about a recent spate of attacks on the power grid that he has investigated and found to be occurring at the rate of about one every four days.
Reilly was interviewed by Steve Scully, the veteran Sunday host of the program, who asked about the rate of attacks of one in four days, given that a power grid failure “could leave millions in the dark by a cyberattack or a physical attack.”

Reilly confirmed that he looked at the Department of Energy (DOE)’s data on physical attacks and found 362 during four years. These attacks are required under federal law to be reported by utilities to the DOE. He said the nature of the attacks “ranges from copper theft and vandalism all the way up to individuals firing shots at critical pieces of infrastructure of our nation’s grid.”

Scully remarked that the observations go to “how vulnerable and how dependent we are.” Reilly responded that “it’s hard to imagine anything more important in our daily lives than the security and reliability of our power grid, so there is some concern about the number of these attacks we’re seeing, how easy it apparently is for some individuals to gain access to some of these key pieces of infrastructure and whether there’s enough security in place to catch intrusions and apprehend the suspects when there is one.”

When Scully asked what surprised Reilly the most about his findings, Reilly pointed to “the regularity; there seems to be a constant stream of security breaches at the facilities we depend on for the transmission and distribution of electricity.”

Scully posted graphics stating that often the infrastructure elements sit in “plain view,” protected by nothing more than a chain link fence and a few security cameras, and often the vandals and attackers are never identified. The industry association that enforces security guidelines reduced penalties by 30 percent from 2013 to 1014.

Reilly explained that the industry group is the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a system set up under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to work with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). NERC is empowered to write the standards that the industry is supposed to follow.

This writer would add that there has also been a recent cluster of accidents involving derailments of trains carrying oil, and this is another area of vulnerability, as oil and volatile chemicals pass through populated areas and other vulnerable infrastructure such as tank farms.

Scully asked Reilly about a “game changer” attack that occurred April 16, 2013, at a PG&E substation in Metcalf outside Silicon Valley in northern California in which attackers severed underground fiber optic lines before firing more than 100 rounds of ammunition at a key substation and causing more than $15 million in damage without being apprehended. It served as a demonstration of the extent of vulnerability. Reilly concluded that his worst fear is a coordinated simultaneous attack that would cause widespread power outages.