Homeland Security Committee Holds Hearing on EMP Risks

The House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on May 17 titled, “Oversight of Federal Efforts to Address Electromagnetic Risks,” on the action federal agencies have or have not taken on protecting the electrical grid against electromagnetic pulse events. The hearing also discussed a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that was released in April 2016 on this topic. Consumers’ Research has been involved in this space as well, our organization’s white paper on EMP may be found here.

In his opening statement, Oversight and Management Efficiency subcommittee chairman Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), said, “long term power outages resulting from an attack on our critical infrastructure could cripple our nation’s economy and put America’s health and safety in jeopardy. Because the nation’s critical infrastructure is so vital to America’s way of life, the federal government has recognized the necessity of securing our infrastructure from an array of risks including the threat of EMP, electromagnetic pulse attack.”

The chairman stated that the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (a division of the department of energy) all have an active role in protecting our infrastructure. He noted that per the GAO report, these federal agencies have taken some action, but that there is plenty of room for improvement. Representatives of all three agencies were present at the hearing as witnesses.

Perry highlighted the role of Congress is protecting the infrastructure – he noted that the House passed HR 1073, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, in November 2015. Perry lamented the fact that this bill has been stuck in committee in the Senate since being passed in the House.

The first witness before the subcommittee was Chris Currie, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues with the GAO. Currie said that most of the actions taken by agencies were “indirect,” due to the private ownership of many of the electric utilities. He told the members that DHS and DOE had invested in research to study the vulnerability of high-voltage transformers. In addition, he said FEMA is developing a plan to address long-term power outages.

Currie said that while some of these initiatives align with the recommendations of the EMP commission, there has not been a “comprehensive, holistic effort to address them,” and there are still recommendations that have not been addressed. Currie highlighted areas where federal agencies can improve: there is confusion in DHS as to who is responsible for electromagnetic risk. He said there is, “no designated lead for coordinating all these efforts together,” and stated that much more needs to be done to identify and prioritize key electrical infrastructure. Neither DHS nor DOE could identify actions in this area; FERC did a survey on this previously, but DHS was not involved. This is an example of the the “no one owns it” syndrome that is often endemic among federal agencies.

Brandon Wales, Director of the Office of Cyber and Infrastructure Analysis at the National Protection and Programs Directorate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, pledged to address the recommendations issued by GAO. Wales said that DHS and DOE are working on a study to assess the impact of EMP and geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) events on electric power assets; they intend to have participation from the intelligence community as well as the private sector. This study is expected to be completed in mid-2017.

The full video of the hearing, as well as written testimony by the witnesses, may be found here.

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