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Will the Electric Industry ‘Cook the Books’ on GRID Exercise?


November 13, 2013


Rep. Trent Franks Calls on NERC to Disavow Utility That Lowballs the Blackout Threat

Washington, DC:  Few public policy issues are of greater import to the future security of the United States and its people than whether the nation’s electric grid is sufficiently resilient to withstand serious, and possibly enduring, disruption from man-caused or naturally occurring events.

Yesterday, however, a congressional warning was sounded that the needed, honest evaluation of that question may be hindered – not advanced – by a test slated for 13-14 November that is billed by its chief sponsor as a “biennial international grid security exercise” designed to evaluate “crisis response plans and identify actionable improvement recommendations for plans, security programs, and skills” in the face of cyber and physical attacks on the grid.

In the attached letter to the leaders of the electric industry’s trade association/regulator, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) expressed concern about the public response of a Florida utility, the Kissimmee Utility Authority, to a National Geographic feature film entitled, “American Blackout” that aired on 27 October 2013.   As Rep. Franks wrote:

“[The docudrama] showed what our countrymen and nation would experience in the event of a cyber attack on the U.S. bulk power distribution system that shut down the grid for ten days.  If anything, the serious hardships, dislocation, physical destruction, deaths and societal breakdown portrayed in this docudrama are likely understated.

“Yet…the Kissimmee Utility Authority saw fit to issue a press release after ‘American Blackout’ was broadcast that downplayed the dangers associated with the sort of disruption portrayed in the film.  It was headlined, ‘No Need for Panic.’”

Mr. Franks, the Co-Chairman of the House Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Caucus, observed: 

We note that the industry has often issued such casual assurances when confronted with evidence – including that contained in no fewer than five different federal government studies in recent years – that a sustained blackout would be catastrophic.  Rather than address this conclusion forthrightly and ensure that corrective actions are taken to prevent such an event, or at least minimize its likelihood, NERC and many of the utilities it represents have historically tried to deflect attention and trivialize the threat.”

Rep. Franks, who introduced last week with Rep. Pete Sessions, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, H.R. 3410, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, asked the electric industry leaders pointedly:  “In light of these dangers, we want to establish whether you and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation share the view of the utility in Kissimmee?  Or do you believe the public should be concerned that the grid may be offline for extended periods?”

In conclusion, Rep. Franks served notice on those responsible for GridEx II:  “If…NERC and others involved in planning and executing GridEx II are dismissive of those who believe such vulnerabilities exist – and if the planners are intent on using the exercise to hide, rather than expose, these shortcomings – GridEx may actually be a grave disservice to the consumer, to the public more generally and perhaps to America’s vital national security.” (Emphasis added.)

A new video (“The Real American Blackout”) was unveiled last week by the EMP Coalition – an ad hoc group made up of many of the nation’s leading experts and organizations committed to protecting the bulk power distribution grid and the critical infrastructures that depends upon it from the terrible consequences of a long-duration loss of power, raises similar concerns.

As described in a Washington Times column published yesterday by Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., a leader of the EMP Coalition, Dr. Peter Pry, has offered four litmus tests that will determine the validity and usefulness of the GridEx II drill:

  • Is the simulated blackout one that affects the entire continental United States, or is it a regional one?
  • Are just a few millions of Americans affected by the blackout, or the whole population of the Lower 48?
  • Are there nuclear and industrial accidents precipitated by the grid going down?
  • Is the power outage of short duration, or is it protracted?  In the latter case, large numbers of us will die, not just be inconvenienced.  Will GridEx II model that danger in order to show what the stakes really are in having a non-resilient grid?

As Mr. Gaffney, another EMP Coalition participant, put it:  “If GridEx II fails to exercise such daunting – yet all-too-realistic – scenarios, NERC and the participating utilities must be held accountable for not only keeping the American people in the dark, but possibly for condemning them to that condition indefinitely.”