Planned legislation to protect power grid

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Updated Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 4:56 p.m. EST

Not long after reports surfaced that foreign spies have penetrated the U.S. power grid, lawmakers are planning to introduce a bill Thursday aimed at creating standards to protect the nation's critical electric infrastructure.

The Critical Electric Infrastructure Protection Act is scheduled to be introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security.

Thompson said failing to protect the electric grid could have a “potentially devastating impact,” according to a statement from his office on Wednesday.

The bill is said to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) authority to issue emergency rules or orders if a cyberthreat is perceived as imminent. FERC is the U.S. agency responsible for overseeing electric rates and natural gas pricing. The rules would be issued in the event of a national security threat, as deemed by the secretary of Homeland Security in conjunction with other national security agencies.

Joe McClelland, FERC's director of the office of electric reliability told SCMagazineUS.com Wednesday that giving FERC this additional authority will be a time saver when dealing with urgent threats. 

As an example, FERC would be able to issue immediate, direct, confidential orders to change passwords at critical facilities, if needed, McClelland said.

In addition, the bill could require FERC to assess and establish interim standards to protect the critical electric infrastructure from known cyberthreats. Also, the bill is said to require the federal Department of Homeland Security to conduct an investigation as to whether federally-owned critical electric infrastructure has been compromised.

“We must ensure that the proper protections, resources and regulatory authorities are in place to address any threat aimed at our power system,” Thompson said. “This legislation addresses these critical issues by providing a common sense approach to ensure continued security of the nation's electric infrastructure.”

In early April, The Wall Street Journal reported that intruders, believed to be from China and Russia, hacked into the power grid over the course of several years so they could learn more about how the critical infrastructure works.

In addition to the planned legislation to secure the nation's critical electric infrastructure, another bill aimed at improving government cybersecurity was introduced Tuesday in the Senate.

The U.S. Information and Communications Act of 2009 (ICE) was introduced by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., to amend the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA), which is said to waste agency resources on paperwork activities, according to the new bill.

The purpose of ICE is to unify policies for securing government systems and to establish standards for government-purchased security products and services, according to the bill. It also is meant to improve coordination among agencies when responding to cyberattacks and address the problem of agencies not knowing specifically what information they have or who has access to it.
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