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Grid Cybersecurity Bills Advanced by House Energy Subcommittee

Bipartisanship crumbles for export bill

Advanced control systems can leave infrastructure like fuel pipelines vulnerable to hackers.
Advanced control systems can leave infrastructure like fuel pipelines vulnerable to hackers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Bipartisan bills that aim to improve the government’s response to cybersecurity attacks on the electric grid advanced out of a House Energy and Commerce panel Wednesday. The action was the latest sign of heightened awareness on Capitol Hill that malicious hackers might be able to turn out the lights.

Four pieces of legislation — all focused on putting into statute coordination within the Department of Energy to prevent cyber attacks on the grid and other energy infrastructure — were advanced by the Energy Subcommittee by voice votes. The votes showed unusual unity on the often-partisan panel.

That divide was apparent, however, in the subcommittee vote on a measure to speed up the export of liquified natural gas from small-scale export facilities. That bill advanced along party lines, 19-14, as Democrats criticized the legislation as harmful to the environment. They also complained that the bill was an earmark for a Florida-based export project, the only pending facility that would meet the requirements. 

Recent high profile attempts by foreign actors, including groups linked with Russia, to probe nuclear facilities and pipeline control systems across the country since 2016 have raised awareness of committee members of the evolving cyber threat.

“As we’ve learned in classified briefings, and recently through the testimonies of Secretary Perry and our FERC Commissioners, cyber-attacks are a real and growing threat,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee, in a statement.

One of the security bills would codify a recent departmental reorganization announced by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in his fiscal 2019 budget request that creates a new assistant secretary position devoted to cybersecurity issues. The bill would ensure position remains part of department leadership in future administrations.

Two of the cyber bills would establish voluntary programs to encourage the private sector and the Energy Department to share research and cybersecurity implementation plans. The fourth bill requires the department to adopt pipeline and LNG export facility cybersecurity plans. 

“The four bipartisan cybersecurity bills before us today will enhance the Department of Energy’s efforts to strengthen the cybersecurity of our nation’s electricity grid and pipeline network,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., the top Democrat of the full committee. “It is critical that we ensure our nation’s energy infrastructure is sufficiently protected from cyber threats.”

Shifting sentiment

The bipartisan vibe evaporated with the small-scale LNG export bill. That legislation would streamline the approval process for small-scale facilities that support exports to the Caribbean, Central America and South America, defined as those that ship no more than 140 million cubic feet per day. 

Republican backers argued the measure would ensure speedy gas exports to Western Hemisphere nations, which they said would provide a steady energy supply that would burn cleaner compared to other fossil fuel sources — a benefit to carbon reduction goals.

“This should not be a partisan issue . . .  neither side of the aisle can deny that American small-scale LNG exports provides geopolitical, economic and environmental benefits,” said bill sponsor Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio. 

Democrats complained that the bill’s requirements would essentially only apply to one facility owned by Houston-based Eagle LNG Partners Jacksonville LLC, according to the Congressional Research Service. That “sounds suspiciously like the kind of legislative earmark” Congress did away with, Pallone said. 

Democrats also said that by sidestepping some permits the bill would undermine environmental protections, more so than a separate Energy Department effort to hasten the pace of the permit reviews.

“In my opinion, that rule is already problematic, but this bill is even worse for the environment than the proposed rule,” Pallone said. 

Republicans promised to address Democrats’ concerns, but it remains to be seen how far that effort will extend.

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