EDITORIAL/Electrical grid under terrorist threat
Wednesday, February 19, 2014 12:00 AM
The Santa Cruz (Calif.) Sentinel said in a recent editorial:
News reporting matters.
We say that to remind readers, and ourselves, that there is no substitute for the kind of journalistic digging that uncovers often uncomfortable truth.
Such a story first appeared last week in The Wall Street Journal about an incident that happened last April 16 near Santa Cruz County - an armed attack on a key electricity substation in south San Jose.
Until the Journal's in-depth report, the incident had been mostly forgotten by the public and perhaps even by law enforcement.
But Jon Wellinghoff, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, stayed on the case. When the Journal assembled a chronology of filings that PG&E made to state and federal regulators and examined initial reports and videos from the attack, Wellinghoff's insistence the assault was domestic terrorism made headlines across the country.
No one has been arrested or charged in the attack at PG&E's Metcalf transmission substation; nearly a month after snipers opened fire on the substation and knocked out 17 giant transformers that send out power to Silicon Valley and beyond, repair crews had the facility back in operation.
End of story, right? To this day, the FBI says it doesn't think the attack was the work of a terrorist organization.
Wellinghoff, the alarm sounder, would beg to differ, contending the clearly well planned assault, if widely replicated, could bring down much the U.S. electricity grid and black out huge sections of the country.
And other experts consulted by Journal reporter Rebecca Smith say the incident has all the hallmarks of a practice run that could be a precursor to more widespread attacks on the electricity grid. While many people in the power industry have been preoccupied with cybersecurity threats, it's more than possible that physical sabotage might be the real risk.
In that light, it's somewhat encouraging that nearly a year after the Metcalf attack, regulators and PG&E are paying attention to the threat.
Congressional leaders in both parties are pushing to impose federal standards for protecting the electric grid from physical attacks in the wake of the Journal report, with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein saying she plans to ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to "set minimum security standards for critical substations.'
On the conservative Republican side, Arizona Rep. Trent Franks - after proclaiming "the last thing I want to do is regulate any industry' - said utilities must do more to protect the grid, and soon, for the sake of national security.
Also, the utility industry's main trade group said members are already working with government regulators and local law enforcement to beef up grid protections.
PG&E said earlier this week it is planning to install opaque walls and enhance an array of security measures at multiple substations in the wake of the shooting attack on the electricity substation.
The utility also said those measures may require a rate increase for customers. That's business as usual for PG&E, which has never found an improvement that wouldn't also require a rate hike - even though these security upgrades are just the bare minimum - and least costly - of what's needed.
PG&E has been mum about when it will start the security upgrades and how many substations would be involved. Lights and cameras, however, probably won't deter the kind of sophisticated assault that took down the Metcalf station.
We turn again to Wellinghoff, who told the Journal that FBI investigators informed him the shell casings found after the shooting were wiped off to prevent fingerprint detection.
"This was extremely high-level professionalism,' Wellinghoff said. "This was a very professional job. We don't know if this was a probing attack' that could lead something far bigger.
No, we don't.