The Obama administration is scrambling to make Mexico by the end of the year a full-fledged member of a North American industry pact that works to defend the electric grid from cyberattacks.
The reason for the eleventh-hour move to include Mexico in the cybergroup is likely a result of the contentious presidential election and the administration's goals of creating a North American clean energy grid. Such collaboration would be far less likely if Republican nominee Donald Trump gets into office with his walled-off vision for the U.S., said a senior industry official. But it would benefit Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who said at last week's final debate that an integrated North American grid with Mexico would be a priority if she were elected.
"There is always a risk when you have democracies go through their elections," said Sergio Marchi, president and CEO of the Canadian Electricity Association, who hosted a meeting Monday at the Canadian embassy in Washington between officials from the two nations on the need for greater collaboration.
"New administrations bring new priorities," Marchi said in an interview with the Washington Examiner. "We're hoping that whoever becomes president that when we look at energy and environment from a North America perspective that we continue to build bridges between us and not erect walls or divisions."
The meeting focused on greater collaboration on electricity with a focus on new cybersecurity and reliability standards being developed by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, which is a standards-making body overseen by federal energy regulators.
The group's CEO, Gerry Cauley, addressed the event on Monday, where he discussed moving ahead soon to begin the process of including Mexico under the reliability organization's mandatory cybersecurity standards, which Canada and Marchi's members are already participants in. Marchi's group is the lead trade association of Canada's power industry and is involved in U.S. regulatory proceedings that affect how electricity flows between the shared north-south border.
The new talks with Mexico underscore a significant expansion of the standards due to the growing threat of cyberattack that all three countries face and the expanded trade of electricity across borders.
That was something that President Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto discussed during a meeting in Ottawa in June.
The Ottawa meeting "pushed us further down in terms of deepening our bonds and our synergies at a time when a lot of headwinds around the world are blowing against collaboration," Marchi said.
"The first concern is that we continue this march," he said. "I like to think that we can become more than just the North American Free Trade Area and become a North American community with a community increasingly of shared values and shared ambitions."
Energy Department officials at the meeting discussed a visit to Mexico City last week where grid collaboration and bringing the country under NERC's security and reliability standards topped the agenda.
Marchi, who is privy to the NERC process as a member of the organization, said "they're hoping for Mexico to sign onto the reliability standards before the end of the year, which would be great."
Cauley discussed the timeframe at the Monday meeting at the embassy.
"Gerry also talked about how important it is to further integrate Mexico … and that our sector is the only sector in all of North America that has mandatory standards when it comes to reliability," Marchi said. "So he talked about how important it is to strengthen that and that Mexico is part of the story."
Cybersecurity must remain a priority, Marchi said. "In other words, the electricity companies and grids are one of the highest targets for hack attempts."
The industry is being "pushed to spend more money on technology and more money on … experts" to defend against the attacks, and greater collaboration between the U.S., Canada and Mexico is part of that defense strategy.
"Security and sharing of information is absolutely the first line of defense," Marchi said. He said the continent can't afford to deal with the security threat like playing "a hand of poker, you know, you keep your cards close to the vest and a faceless look."
"But we can't play poker with cybersecurity," he said. "We need to share what is happening, what technologies are we using so that we might all be more intelligent and effective individually.
"So, those would be the … issues as we look to the election results, which have been captivating to say the least," he said. "Those are some issues that we think about once the dust settles and the administration begins to work of the people."
Marchi also said the Canadian power industry wants to have its own presence in Mexico because of the growing trend of collaboration, and it plans to set up a Mexico contingent of his trade group there.
The focus between Mexico and Canada will be on clean energy development, recalling the collaborative agreement the countries signed in June to derive 50 percent of their energy from low-carbon, low-emission power plants by 2025.
Canada's power sector will be lobbying for building six transmission lines across the U.S. and Canadian border to begin moving more electricity from Canada's hydroelectric dams to expand renewable energy across North America.
"We have 35 lines that connect the north-south grid now and there are six in development," Marchi said. "If we complete those six, it will increase the capacity of export flows by 50 percent, which is a sizable number."