A powerful Senate Democrat urged swift action from federal electric grid regulators Thursday to protect critical assets in light of a news report that has rattled regulators, lawmakers and the utility industry.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein said concerns have been raised by a Wall Street Journal article detailing a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission analysis that concluded knocking out nine key substations and a transformer manufacturer could spark a nationwide blackout lasting 18 months or more.
The California Democrat, teeing up one of the first swings in a debate that figures to intensify in the coming weeks, said protecting those substations should be the first priority of forthcoming FERC guidelines for physical security.
"I'm one that believes that FERC did the right thing saying that there needs to be standards and we need to move forward quickly on all the big, critical substations," Feinstein, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters in the Capitol.
FERC began drawing up baseline standards last week in response to requests from Feinstein, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and others following an April attack by armed gunmen at a San Jose, Calif.-area substation.
The Edison Electric Institute, which represents the nation's investor-owned utilities, says it welcomes that effort.
But Thomas Kuhn, the group's president, pushed for an investigation to see how the Journal got its information on the electric grid's vulnerabilities.
"[W]e encourage [FERC], Congress and the administration to investigate the disclosure of this sensitive information to The Wall Street Journal to ensure that we all continue to have a strong partnership going forward," Kuhn said.
Feinstein agreed that publishing the information was unwise, but was less strident than Kuhn.
"I think it's better off not said, not publicized. But it's the world we live in," Feinstein said.
FERC Acting Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur took a harsher tone, saying that "the publication of sensitive material about the grid crosses the line from transparency to irresponsibility, and gives those who would do us harm a roadmap to achieve malicious designs."
Those issues could arise at an already-planned meeting between members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and federal officials to discuss the San Jose incident, Charlotte Baker, a committee spokeswoman, told the Washington Examiner.
"We share concerns that sensitive information was released," Baker said in an email.